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Courthouse Dogs Go South
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Our next meetings were with the family-crime investigation unit of the Policía de Investigaciones de Chile (PDI) and Servicio Nacional de Menores (SENAME) of the Ministry of Justice, a child–sexual abuse treatment organization, to discuss their interest in implementing a courthouse dogs program. Two detectives picked us up, and we had an exciting ride through an assortment of neighborhoods to their headquarters. As we were escorted into the building, we saw a formal line of police officials waiting to greet us. Cesar had told us that in Chile, people air-kiss one another on the right cheek, but it was still a surprise to be greeted by these distinguished gentlemen this way.

Once the salutations were over, we made our first presentation to a group of about 10 high-ranking police officials. With Cesar and Cecilia acting as translators, we explained how professionally trained assistance dogs could help children and their families during the investigation and prosecution of sexual-assault crimes. It was very hard to read their expressions—we couldn’t tell if they thought we were brilliant, or crazy. But when Cesar broke out Seattle Police Department sweatshirts and hats, their demeanor changed, and we knew we had at least connected on that level.

Our meeting with the SENAME staff was entirely different. Here, forensic interviewers, a family court judge and therapeutic counselors made up the audience, and within minutes, it was clear they were ready to try anything to assist children and their families through this difficult process. We were told that there is a great deal of pressure to keep intrafamily sexual abuse secret, especially if reporting it meant that the father would be removed from the home. The mothers’ intentions are good, but they can easily become frustrated with the prolonged process. Not only are they usually unable to support their families by themselves, they see that their abused children begin to feel revictimized by having to repeatedly describe what happened to them. Cases were often dismissed for these reasons and, even worse, the children were not receiving the therapeutic counseling they needed to recover from their experiences. Maybe the dogs could make a difference.

To our delight, we were invited to a second meeting with the PDI investigators, one at which the entire staff was present. This time there were smiles, and the detectives were on their knees hugging the dog Cecilia had brought with her. Apparently, they thought we were more brilliant than crazy. In a leap of faith, the police had decided to work with Bocalán Confiar assistance dogs and SENAME to make a Chilean courthouse dogs program a reality. The deal was sealed when PDI detectives gave us souvenirs from their department to bring back to the United States. The following day, Santiago television stations and newspapers covered Chile’s decision to begin a courthouse dogs program. Suddenly, the issue of child sexual abuse was big news, and this innovative approach demonstrated that the government was willing to do all it could to address the problem.

Epilogue
Within weeks of our return to the U.S., we learned that, due to Cecilia’s efforts, the Bayer Corporation in Chile had offered to fund their courthouse dogs program. In addition, the Ministry of Justice wanted six Bocalán Confiar assistance dogs to begin training with the police and counselors by January 2010. Cecilia, who had to work fast to get this started, asked Fundación Bocalán, the parent organization in Spain that supports Chile’s program, to lend a hand with additional dogs and training expertise. Teo Mariscal, director of Fundación Bocalán, enthusiastically agreed to help out, traveling to Chile with three dogs and assisting with the training. Courthouse Dogs, a.k.a. Perros de Asistencia Judicial, is now active in Chile and making a difference.

What a lesson in humility! I had thought that Chileans were unlikely to be receptive to this idea, but not only were they interested, they established and funded a national program faster than has been done in our country. Now, we are lagging behind. 

Recently, Teo Mariscal asked if we would be interested in helping him establish a similar program in Colombia. “Sure,” we said. “We love to travel!” Stay tuned…

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 60: Jun/Jul/Aug 2010
Ellen O'Neill-Stephens a senior deputy prosecuting attorney in Seattle, Wash., and Celeste Walsen, DVM, co-founded Courthouse Dogs LLC in 2008. courthousedogs.com

Dog trainers from Bocalán Confiar with director, Cecilia Marré, second from left (front row); detectives and counselors from PDI (back row). Santiago, Chile.

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