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Bar News - January 15, 2014


Court News: Dog’s Day in Court Soon to Come?

By:


Carroll County Child Advocacy Center Executive Director Elizabeth Kelley with the center’s facility dog, Westin.
Photo credit Suzanne Scott
A therapy dog helps support victims in Carroll County

Sexual abuse investigators in Carroll County have a new ally in the sensitive task of interviewing child victims and witnesses – Westin, a two-year-old golden retriever.

Westin, a “facility dog,” came to the Child Advocacy Center of Carroll County last May. He does not ask questions, but his mere presence puts clients at ease in a stressful situation, says Elizabeth Kelley, the center’s executive director. The dog, selected for his gentle and affectionate temperament and trained in obedience, enhances the warm, homey environment the center strives to provide its clients – children, their families, and even the investigators dealing with sexual abuse investigations.

The Carroll County center is part of a statewide network of child advocacy centers that seek to minimize the stress and the ordeal experienced by young sexual assault victims by providing interviews in a setting other than a police department. The centers also act as a home base for interdisciplinary teams that are called in to work on child sexual assault cases.

Westin, the facility dog, might someday even accompany a victim to the witness stand in New Hampshire court, Kelley said, although she has no immediate plans to expand his role. “There is no reason he couldn’t go,” she says.

Nationwide, there are more than 30 jurisdictions with “courthouse dogs” who have been trained to go to court, providing the intangible support a young victim might need to discuss sensitive matters in open court, in the presence of the alleged abuser, according to the Courthouse Dog Foundation. Kelley said she believes her center is the first to add a four-footed member to the team.

Ellen O’Neil Stevens, a retired prosecutor from Seattle, started the Courthouse Dog Foundation. Since 2003, she has promoted the use of highly trained assistance dogs to provide comfort to children and adults who are victims or witnesses of crimes and support juveniles and adults in mental health and drug courts. The foundation’s website, www.courthousedogs.com, provides guidance on how to find and train dogs for these purposes, and has posted numerous court decisions and orders supporting their use in court. One of those orders was from a California appellate court that ruled in 2012 that the trial court judge had the discretion to allow the witness to be accompanied by a dog. The court said it was comparable to the witness holding a “cute teddy bear in her hands” to provide her comfort.

In some jury trials where defense attorneys have objected to the potential prejudice of the dog’s presence, the dog has been brought into court before the jury is seated and is kept in a “down” position out of sight.

In a 2012 trial in Everett, Wash., a courthouse dog, Stilson, remained calm and out of sight during a lengthy direct and cross-examination of a 10-year-old witness, the victim of repeated beatings and abuse. The dog did not even move when defense counsel spilled a glass of water into the witness box, according to a news account of the trial, which resulted in a conviction.

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