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National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

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Dog Puts Victims at Ease in Courtroom

By Charlie Ban
STAFF WRITER

Maricopa County, Ariz. 

The difference maker in a recent criminal trial in Maricopa County, Ariz. wasn’t a prosecutor.

When an eight-year-old victim’s reticence to enter a courtroom to face a perpetrator led to a mistrial, personnel in the county attorney’s office looked for a way to bolster her confidence and sense of security.

They found it — two feet from the ground, standing on four legs — and with the aid of Sam, a Golden Retriever-Irish Setter mix, the victim was able to take the stand during the retrial, which resulted in a conviction.

 
Photo courtesy of Rhonda Stewart

Sam, the Maricopa County District Attorney’s courthouse dog, relaxes in the office. He serves as an aid to help victims, young and old alike, feel at ease during court proceedings.
 

This courthouse dog program, which its creators say helped a young girl maintain the composure necessary to answer attorneys’ questions and point directly at her tormentor, has been lauded by the county attorney’s office as a major step toward meeting the emotional needs of young victims.

After reading an article about courthouse dogs helping victims of sexual assault in a trade journal, Victim’s Division Chief Jamie Maybery pursued further research about the dogs’ possible use. Besides helping children in the courtroom, dogs could also help adults, families of victims, attorneys and judicial staff members involved in particularly traumatic cases, and people at crime scenes.

Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, King County, Wash. senior deputy prosecutor and founder of Courthouse Dogs said the presence of a dog can benefit both sides in a courtroom.

“It’s an adversarial system, it can be emotionally draining for everybody,” she said. “It can do a great deal to relieve stress so we can do our job and seek justice.”

She said although the dogs are primarily known for their work with children, defendants are allowed to make use of the dogs, and veterans have taken a shine to them, too.

“The presence of dogs has been amazing for kids,” she said. “Sometimes it can make the difference between conviction or acquittal.”

In one situation, a defense attorney and child victim both petted the dog during cross examination, which O’Neill-Stephens thought influenced the jury to see the defense attorney as more than a mouthpiece for the accused.

“As prosecutors, it’s our job to seek justice, and if the dog helps, in that situation, the jury sees the defendant as a human being, too, that goes a long way.”

The nonprofitFoundation for Service Dog Support (FSDS) in Arizona helped train, evaluate and certify the dogs for service. That program support and volunteer donations have eliminated the cost of training and veterinary care to the attorney’s office.

Courthouse Dogs refers to a training program in which 8-week-old dogs live in volunteers’ homes for 14 to 18 months. The volunteers and their dogs attend training class each week where the young dogs are exposed to a wide variety of people, animals, noises, and experiences, to temper their sensibilities for the courtroom and office. At two years, and following a two-week handler training period, the dogs are ready for service.

FSDS works with several local high schools to identify at-risk teens to take the dogs through the training program, and care for them as they grow. Sam, the Golden-Irish mix, reported to the attorney’s office almost every day throughout his training.

He now lives with Rhonda Stewart, a victim’s advocate, who says when Sam gets home and his work vest comes off, he is just as scrappy as her other, stay-at-home dog. Sam’s bed is right near Stewart’s desk.

Victims meet Sam during their meet-and-greet with the prosecutor.

“A lot of victims will lie down on Sam, the motion of his breathing puts them at ease,” she said. “They brush him, stroke his fur, interact with him, and it seems like they respond well to having him available.”

For children forced to relive disturbing times on their lives, Sam seems to make the ordeal less stressful.

“We think this will reduce secondary trauma to the victims coming through the process,” Stewart said. “They can look back on the experience and make it not one of horror and negativity.

“It’s so contrary to the court environment, where people are formal. You have this loving, gentle creature who makes the whole situation much more relaxing, and court is no longer such a hostile place.”

For more information on courthouse dogs, visit www.courthousedogs.com.