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Inside Criminal Justice

Not Just a Courthouse Dog

April 14, 2014 07:27:33 am

By Cara Tabachnick

Marybeth, one of the nation's 60 courthouse dogs. (Photo courtesy of the Yamhill County District Attorney)

On her third day of work for the District Attorney’s office in Yamhill County, Oregon, Marybeth lay at the feet of a 7-year old girl who was required to be in the courtroom during the sentencing of a man convicted of sexually assaulting her.   

Every time the girl got upset, Marybeth lifted her head. That was enough to soothe the child.

The day before, Marybeth had spent hours comforting a murder victim’s family during an arduous day of interviews with investigators. 

Marybeth is an unusual “new hire” for Yamhill County prosecutors, who pay her room and board.

Two years old, she’s part yellow lab and part golden retriever—one of some 60 “courthouse dogs” working in justice-related facilities in 23 states.  

The animals are trained to provide emotional support to victims and witnesses caught in the often unpleasant procedures of criminal justice. The unique ability of these animals to comfort victims, particularly children, is increasingly recognized by court officials around the country.

“Everyone involved in the criminal justice system is there because they choose to be—only victims are there because to have be,” says Brad Berry, Yamhill County District Attorney, explaining  his decision to bring Marybeth to his office.

“It is our job to make the system as approachable and as stress-free as possible for victims.”

The training process is long and rigorous, with the average length from application to receiving the facility dog approximately two and a half years, according to Ellen O’Neill-Stephen, co-founder of Court House Dogs Foundation, a Washington state based nonprofit  that educates the legal profession about facility dogs.

The Foundation also  coordinates placement for dogs around the country.

O’Neill-Stephen, a former deputy prosecutor in Kings County, Washington, started the foundation after her disabled son’s guide dog, Jeeter, accompanied her to the 2003 trial testimony of twin young girls who were molested by their father. 

With Jeeter providing silent emotional support,  the girls were able to successfully complete their testimony and convict the father, said O’Neill-Stephen.

Benefit to Children

“I saw what a huge benefit it was to the children, to me (as) the prosecutor, to the judge, and to the family to see some positivity in such a negative place, and I thought this had to be replicated,” said O’Neill-Stephen.

In 2008, she joined forces with Celeste Walsen, a Bellevue WA veterinarian, to start the foundation. The two of them travel the country educating and training the legal profession about courthouse dogs.

They speak at conferences, district attorneys’ offices, advocacy centers, and also distribute educational DVDs to interested parties.

Once prosecutors or advocates let the foundation know they are interested in getting a dog, they are connected with a service dog organization, such as Assistance Dogs of the West or Canine Dogs of Independence, who have long experience in training and placing dogs within facilities or with a disabled person.  

The procedures vary for each service organization.

Normally, the legal office fills out a complex application, conducts a phone interview and a personal interview with the applicant and the handler with whom the dog will be living. The handler must agree to have the dog live at his or her house and take the animal to work daily.  

Handlers can include victim advocates, investigators, even the District Attorney. Before the dog is placed in the office, the handler trains for two weeks with the service dog organization, learning how to give commands, understand how the dog works, and how to teach others to work with the dog.

Then the service-dog organization inspects the handler’s house and work premises.  

“We train the dog to have the temperament you would need to work in a courtroom,” said Jill Felice, Founder and Program Director of Assistance Dogs of the West.

Clients pay the cost of training the dogs, ranging from $6,000 to $7,000.  Additional costs, such as veterinarian fees, trainer time, and room and board, can run from $25,000 to $50,000.

Some jurisdictions, like Yamhill County, raise private funds to pay for these extra costs.  Others, such as Porter County, Indiana or Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish, use foundation grants or asset forfeiture funds.

But the jurisdictions contacted say their primary challenge is to back up their commitment with creative ways to provide the necessary funds.

Getting the dog was a priority for Yamhill County; the office raised approximately $35,000 to cover the care and feeding of Marybeth.  It wasn’t easy.

“I committed to raise the funds to pay for this program, privately,” said Berry. “(We faced) the challenges that any organization has in private fundraising.”

The Courthouse Dogs Foundation helps the offices receiving the dogs to address the intricate legal issues surrounding the use of an animal in a trial.

Some critics argue having a dog in a courtroom during emotional testimony could be unfair to a defendant by creating a bias towards the alleged victim.

Prosecutorial Misconduct?

In a 2011 New York rape trial of a 15-year old victim, defense lawyers claimed prosecutors’ use of a dog during victim testimony was “prosecutorial misconduct.”

But the state ruled on appeal that animals could be allowed to provide comfort doing testimony.

In Washington State, a similar decision was affirmed at the appellate level when a disabled man had a dog with him during testimony.

Despite the occasional legal hassles, the courthouse dogs have developed a real following.

Capt. Tommy Beeson, Chief Investigator for the Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana District Attorney’s office, is the primary handler for Darnell, the office’s facility dog.

Darnell is assigned to one to two child abuse cases a week.

“I’ve been in law enforcement for 40 years,” said Beeson, who is a Sheriff’s Deputy.

“But to see Darnell restore the trust in the children who were abused has given me enough pep and energy that now I’m going to stay until Darnell retires. “

Cheryl Polarek, Deputy Prosecutor in Indiana’s Porter County, believes that dogs supply the warmth and compassion that are often missing in a trial setting.    

Polarek stumbled upon the Courthouse Dog Foundation after searching for a long time for something that could help victims of sexual abuse—especially children— get through the traumatic and painful experience of a trial.

The office’s dog, Tony, started in June 2013 after being trained through the Indiana Canine Assistance Network.

“Everyone wants something from the child in the criminal justice system,” says Polarek. “But the only agenda a dog has is the child; the dog is the only there just for the child.”

Cara Tabachnick is Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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