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Dogs in the Courtroom
A comforting canine presence provides victims with a safe harbor
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Jeeter and Ashley at work.

It’s everyone’s nightmare: You’re the victim of a serious crime. Your world collapses—you’re frightened, stunned, physically injured and completely overwhelmed. Police and prosecutors interview you about the smallest details, forcing you to relive the experience over and over. Eventually, you’ll have to face the perpetrator in court, testifying and once again reviving the horror. Emotionally paralyzed, you don’t know if you can do it.

Now imagine the same situation, but this time, a special dog rests at your feet during every interview, sits with you outside the courtroom as you wait to testify—perhaps even goes up to the witness stand with you—and stands beside you at sentencing when you give the court your victim-impact statement. This four-legged victim/witness advocate—accompanied by his human counterpart from the victim advocate’s office—helps you remain calm and reduces what can be a traumatic part of the legal process. You stroke his soft fur, gaze into his warm brown eyes and feel the reassuring weight of his head resting on your foot. He’s there for you, giving you exactly what you need at that moment: strength to get through this part of the nightmare.

This is not a totally speculative scenario. In Washington’s King and Snohomish counties, two innovative prosecuting attorney’s offices have begun using highly trained service dogs to help victims of crime, and the dogs are having a positive impact. Not only do they assist victims, they also boost morale for the prosecutors and victim advocates who deal with the often-horrible consequences of crime on a daily basis.

Synchronicity
It all started with Ellen O’Neill-Stephens’ flash of insight. Stephens, a King County deputy prosecuting attorney working in Seattle, has an adult son, Sean, who has cerebral palsy and is severely disabled. In 2003, Stephens and Sean went to Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) of Santa Rosa, Calif., for a service dog and were matched with Jeeter, a big yellow Golden Retriever/Lab mix. Jeeter made it easier for people to approach Sean, and Sean was able to “give back” by sharing Jeeter with others. While she and Sean were undergoing training at CCI, Stephens noticed that other participants were getting “facility” dogs, dogs trained to assist caregivers in various types of institutions. One was slated for a neonatal ICU, others for a spinal cord injury unit and a veteran’s hospital; dogs were also being placed with children with autism.

Upon returning to Seattle and her office, Stephens began thinking creatively, wondering if service dogs might assist in the legal setting. On days that Jeeter could not accompany Sean, Stephens took the dog to work with her. She was the Drug Court prosecutor, and thought Jeeter might help kids with their recovery. She was right—the children quickly adopted Jeeter as their mascot. “One day in my office lobby, a boy, sexually abused by his mother and who [had] sexually abused his sister, glommed onto Jeeter. I didn’t know this at the time, but the prosecutor was offering a deal to get him to testify against his mother, and the boy was backing out. The boy asked to play with Jeeter. I asked him, ‘Would it be easier to talk if Jeeter was with you?’ He said yes, so the plea discussion was rescheduled. At the next meeting, I said, ‘Everyone on the floor!’ so the boy could sit and hug Jeeter. Defense counsel, prosecutor, cop—everyone sat on the floor. It worked. He told them everything that had happened.”

This was an “Aha!” moment for Stephens: The King County prosecutor’s office should have its own facility dog to work with victims. She started with her office’s sexual assault unit. No response. She pushed. Some were receptive, others, not so much. Things stalled. Finally, Stephens arranged for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and members of the sexual assault unit to meet Jeeter. “Jeeter convinced them,” Stephens recalls with a laugh.

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