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Volunteers recognized for help with child abuse victims

When the Carroll County State's Attorney's Office handles a child abuse case, they usually turn to a set of volunteers to help with the victims.

Bikers Against Child Abuse and Keystone Pet Enhanced Therapy Services, who specialize in children victims, are often called on by the state's attorney's office to help during these difficult cases.

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The state's attorney's office showed its appreciation for the groups during a reception Thursday at Carroll County Circuit Court.

Michelle Schaffer, director of the victim witness unit, said the work of the volunteers is an important tool in making the victims comfortable in going through the court process.

It's the subtle things Schaffer notices in the children during their preparation for trial.

"Before they answer your question they'll pet the dog, they'll relax a little bit, you can just see it, and then they'll answer the question," Schaffer said.

Wendi Mitzel, member of KPETS, based in Lancaster, Pa., said she has seen victims who have totally shut down because of the trauma they've experienced, but after bringing the dogs to them, they open up.

"It's very stressful for these kids. They've been abused, they've gone through a lot of trauma, so they're a little stressed about having to testify against their abuser or offender," Mitzel said. "So we just come in and we try to let the dogs help alleviate some of the stress about having to testify."

The pets have helped victims in three cases in the county since November.

The dogs can't go into the courtroom with the children, but just knowing that they're waiting outside for them goes a long way, Mitzel said.

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"We are really here just to support the kids," Mitzel said.

BACA, an international nonprofit organization, has three chapters in Maryland. They've been working with the state's attorney's office since 2007.

The organization's goal is to empower children to face their abusers in court.

The volunteers make the victims a part of their organization. They give them denim biker jackets with their own biker name, and they visit them and go to court with them.

State's Attorney Jerry Barnes said the service the volunteers provide is an integral part in helping the attorneys prepare the victims adequately for trial.

"You provide an invaluable service to us and to the citizens of this county," Barnes said.

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"Especially the kind of cases that you help us with, they're the cases with the most vulnerable victims, they're the cases with victims that have typically been traumatized more than any other normal victim and they live with this the rest of their lives, many of them."

The therapy dogs and bikers help children of abuse attempt to move forward from the traumatic experiences they've gone through, Schaffer said.

"We're never going to change what happened to these children, it's horrible, why they're here is horrible," Schaffer said. "But what [the volunteers] do is they add a little bit so it's not such an unpleasant thing to move on to the next step of their healing process."

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