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Courthouse ‘comfort’ dogs aid witnesses

The Associated Press//November 29, 2021

Courthouse ‘comfort’ dogs aid witnesses

The Associated Press//November 29, 2021

(AP) A chance encounter between a big, friendly dog and a mentally withdrawn teen who had been sexually assaulted was the light bulb moment for Powhatan County Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Cerullo, who discovered canines can have a discernible calming effect on traumatized victims of crime.

In November 2020, Cerullo brought his new dog Olive — a then 12-month-old, 100-pound Bullmastiff — into the office to meet his co-workers. By coincidence, a 13-year-old rape victim arrived that morning to meet with another prosecutor who was assigned to the girl’s case.

“She was very, very withdrawn,” Cerullo said. “She was not in the right mental space to meet with the prosecutor and be subjected to questions.”

Then something remarkable happened. Olive, who was roaming the office, walked up to the girl, sat down in front of her and put her paw on the girl’s leg. Over the next 30 minutes, the girl “was just having fun, petting Olive and loving on her,” said Cerullo, who didn’t learn of the connection until later.

“It was a complete change in the girl, and she was much more open to talk to (the prosecutor),” Cerullo said. The girl was so taken with Olive that she asked if the dog could be in the office when she returned the following week for another meeting.

It was at that moment that Cerullo’s colleague, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Gretchen Brown, suggested that Olive undergo training to become a certified courthouse therapy dog. Cerullo made the commitment and on Oct. 28, after nearly a year of training with Reach K-9 in Powhatan, Olive was “sworn in” by Circuit Judge Paul Cella as a certified therapy dog.

Olive is now one of at least four dogs being trained or already on the job in courthouses in the Richmond region. Their use in a criminal proceeding is authorized under Virginia law.

Since the concept was first put into practice in Seattle in 2004, a growing number of courts across the country are allowing professionally trained dogs to provide quiet companionship to frightened or intimidated victims and witnesses of crimes without causing any disruption to a legal setting — a practice that has been shown to ease their experiences in the criminal justice system.

As of Oct. 29, there were at least 272 “courthouse facility dogs” working in 41 states, including in seven localities in Virginia, according to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation in Bellevue, Wash. Because of differing training standards, the foundation does not recognize “therapy” dogs used in legal or court settings, so those types of canines are not included in its count.

The canines can be commanded to lie quietly in the witness box of a courtroom, offering a supportive presence that helps victims and witnesses compose themselves as they testify in a criminal case. They also are used behind the scenes to comfort victims and witnesses before court hearings and trials as prosecutors and judges try to elicit information necessary for cases to move forward.

The dogs are placed with handlers who are professionals in the legal field — usually prosecutors, investigators or victim advocates. The canines are “working dogs” that are chosen for their calm demeanors and ability to work in high-stress environments, the Courthouse Dog Foundation said on its website. When the dog’s work is done, it goes home with its handler and is “off duty,” and enjoys life as a pet.

In Henrico County, a 7-month-old Aussiedoodle named Bailey, who was donated to the county’s Victim Witness Assistance Program, has passed her first “puppy” class and now is undergoing the next phase of dog therapy training that will span many months. Bailey also is a student of Reach K-9.

The dog has been matched with Kristen Camp, a victim witness advocate, who has a passion for dogs and wanted to acquire a canine that could be trained for court purposes after researching the concept for years. She hopes to have Bailey certified by next spring or summer.

“The goal is to have Bailey as a certified dog to provide comfort and support to victims of violent crime as they go through the court process, both in court preparation and during testimony in court,” said Shelly Shuman-Johnson, director of Henrico’s Victim Witness Assistance Program.

Mitz, a 3-year-old Black Lab assigned to Judge M. Duncan Minton Jr. of Chesterfield County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, has completed his training as a courthouse facility dog and been on the job since July. Mitz was trained by St. Francis Service Dogs, a nonprofit organization in Roanoke that trains service and facility dogs.

Mitz lives with the judge, who is his primary handler. The judge even trained with the dog to learn what Mitz knows and how to handle him.

Minton said he looked into acquiring a trained facility dog after hearing about their benefits while attending judicial and commonwealth’s attorney conferences in recent years. Minton is a former Chesterfield prosecutor.

Mitz’s role goes beyond comforting victims and witnesses. He also helps reduce the stress levels of courthouse staff who can vicariously experience the trauma of those impacted by crime, Minton said. “He’s very popular.”

“As a facility dog, one of Mitz’s jobs is to allow himself to be petted, because that’s one way that he helps comfort both witnesses and victims,” the judge said. “He’s here for the staff, too, and that’s what makes him a little bit different.”

“I have all sorts of people who come to visit or ask to visit him just when they’re having a rough day,” Minton added. “But his real specialty is with witnesses and victims, especially kids. But he even works with adult witnesses who are very nervous (because) they’re in an uncomfortable place, talking about uncomfortable things. He’s very good at reading people. He’s learned to read the stress of people.”

One of the first people Mitz assisted was a 13-year-old girl who was a witness in a domestic dispute involving her parents. She was called into Minton’s chambers to provide an account of what occurred.

“She was very, very nervous about that, understandably,” Minton said.

Once seated inside the judge’s office, Mitz “went directly up to her, put his head in her lap and she just rubbed his ears while she told me what she needed to tell me,” the judge said. “And it was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen.”

When the girl finished providing her account, Minton asked how she felt when she got called into the judge’s chambers. “She said, ‘I felt like I was dying inside,’” Minton recalled.

The judge then asked if Mitz had helped her. “She said ‘I don’t think I could have done it without him being here,’” Minton said.

So far, Mitz has been deployed only once in the courtroom. He’s been more commonly used by Chesterfield’s victim witness advocates or the Chesterfield Domestic and Sexual Violence Resource Center, Minton said.

“We’ll have him sit with witnesses in the little antechambers before they go into the courtrooms,” the judge said. “He’ll sit with them in there and just kind of calm everything down.”

Mitz also has been called on to assist children who have been paired with guardian ad litems — attorneys appointed by the court to represent the interests of minors in cases involving divorce, child custody, child support and adoption. The attorneys will have Mitz spend time with the children to put them at ease before they have to go into court, Minton said.

Mitz has become a fixture in the courthouse. The judge brings him to work every day, and “he’s in court when I’m in court.”

“I’ve made it as comfortable for him (at the courthouse) as possible,” Minton said. “He’s got what we call his ‘condo’ — a nice, soft-sided pet crate. He knows what desks to crawl under, he knows where he can go and where he’s not supposed to go.”

“He’s just an amazingly calm and soothing animal,” the judge added. “And when he’s home and not working, he’s an amazingly fun and energetic puppy.”

Although Henrico’s dog, Bailey, is still in the beginning stages of her training, she has been approved to assist victims and witnesses in court preparation meetings. In one such meeting two months ago with the mother and sister of a young man who had been slain, Bailey interacted with the family members; they loved having her by their side, staff members said.

The victim’s sister “was sitting on the floor and loving on her,” Camp said. “She said Bailey was the best addition to our office.”

Bailey also helped a young woman who was the victim of a sexual assault make it through a difficult meeting that required her to view a videotaped interview. “She didn’t like sitting through it and we had Bailey sit with her, and she was listening while she was loving on Bailey,” Camp said.

In Central Virginia, Nottoway County courts also have acquired a canine that has been trained as a victim witness therapy dog. Chance, a Goldendoodle, was certified in October and already has been used more than 10 times in a courtroom setting, said Chance’s handler, Rita Flippen, who serves as the county’s victim witness program director.

“People love him and he loves people — he loves kids,” Flippen said. “He is best in (providing) emotional support.”

In the run-up to being certified as a therapy dog, Powhatan’s canine, Olive, had a similar intervention in June involving a 17-year-old girl who had been sexually battered. A juvenile boy was charged.

On the day of the trial, the girl was on edge as she waited about 45 minutes to testify. After Powhatan Victim Witness Assistance Program Director Wendy McClellan noticed the girl’s distress and texted Cerullo, the prosecutor took Olive to the girl to help calm her. Olive then entertained the girl by following Cerullo’s commands to follow, sit, heel and play fetch — a welcomed distraction as she waited to be called.

“It made the waiting period go much quicker,” Cerullo said. “I hadn’t even considered the advantage of the dog on young people. It gives them something to focus on other than (their bad experience).”

Richmond Times-Dispatch

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