Therapy dogs in court comfort traumatized children

Op-ed: Therapy dogs comfort traumatized children as they tell their stories.

When I was told last year that I would be the lead prosecutor on a murder case involving an 8-year-old child witness, I knew a very important member of my team would be Rikki the therapy dog.

The boy was the sole witness to the fatal stabbing of his 6-year-old brother at the hands of their grandmother. The first time I met the child, Rikki was there, along with her handler. But he barely noticed us; his attention was 100 percent focused on this calm Golden Retriever who loves to eat baby carrots. As we continued to meet throughout the development of the case, and he had to recall horrific memories, the boy always knew Rikki would be there. In his mind, she would keep him safe.

Florida has allowed therapy dogs to be used to comfort child victims and witnesses in the courtroom since 2011. Ours was the first state in the U.S. to pass a law allowing it, and numerous other states have passed similar legislation or are considering it. Maryland's legislature recently passed SB 1106, which establishes a pilot program for the use of courthouse therapy dogs in Anne Arundel and Harford counties. This is good news for those counties, and I am confident that others will want to emulate their success.

To me, it's a matter of common sense. Shame on you if you don't give children every possible opportunity to avoid being re-traumatized, including providing a therapy dog to comfort them when they have to tell their story. It would be like denying them the latest standard of care.

Our prosecutors use therapy dogs more frequently as a tool for crimes involving child-sexual violence (two such cases are chronicled in the recently released book "Encounters with Rikki"). Like that murder case, these usually involve one eyewitness — the child — and much of the case is dependent upon their testimony, since there's rarely any physical evidence. There's usually a delay in reporting because of the child's confusion surrounding the abuse: It's often committed by a person in authority over them, and they have been told not to tell; the child may not even have a vocabulary to describe the act, and they often feel a tremendous amount of shame or guilt.

When I started out as a prosecutor, I tried to educate myself on child psychology to better understand how these cases affect them. I learned that the best approach was to help the child feel more comfortable with his or her surroundings, to give them a positive distraction as you're trying to learn the facts of the case.

I understand this better now that I'm the father of two children under the age of 8. For example, I can tell them to smile for the camera, and they will. But I notice I can get a very different picture when they aren't posing. I capture that genuine emotion of happiness in their eyes when they're relaxed. That's what animal therapy does — it allows the child to be absorbed and distracted by the dog's presence, so they can be a kid again. And even if I'm asking questions, they'll talk more candidly and less guardedly, very often looking at the dog when they answer.

It's not just prosecutors who understand the value of therapy dogs with child witnesses. If there's a question of false accusation, the defense attorney must prove it, and that often hinges on the child's deposition. These sessions can be intense, and it's in the defense attorney's best interest for the child to be as relaxed as possible, so the truth can come out — unrehearsed, unscripted. Rikki was the first therapy dog to be used in a Florida deposition. And as our defense attorneys have seen, if you get a kid acting like a kid, they'll give you all the details you need, including anything that would indicate a false accusation.

In recent years, the use of therapy dogs has proven itself. We had our first ruling out of the State of New York, which was supportive of the process on a national basis. Our appellate judges have not found any problems with it, and our trial judges have warmly accepted it. Our senior administrative trial judge, who is a former prosecutor, a former chief assistant of the U.S. Attorney's Office and is very well-schooled in the criminal law, has adopted it and accepted it as well.

Most importantly, to me, the families of children who have to testify love it.

I am encouraged by the new law taking effect in Maryland, and I know the families and children will be grateful to have therapy dogs available to them in their time of need.

In the future, I'd like to see every courtroom throughout the U.S. have access to a therapy dog team. It's not hurting the dog, the defendant or the justice system. All you're doing is helping the child go through this experience.

Jack Campbell has been an assistant state's attorney for Florida's Second Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee, Fla. since 2001. His email is CampbellJ@leoncountyfl.gov.

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