A chain of traumatic events landed a five-year-old boy and his mom in a homeless shelter, where things turned even more tragic. The little boy was sexually abused by another kid staying at the shelter.
Thinking about how best to prepare her young client for the intimidating court process looming ahead, Helene Potlock, victim/witness assistance program director for the state attorney of the Second Judicial Circuit, was ready to try something completely new.
“I talked to his mom and said, ‘What do you think about bringing in a dog? Do you think your son would like that?’”
As it turned out, the little boy was heartbroken that he’d been forced to give up his own beloved small dog when they’d moved into the shelter.
“So to bring in the dog was the just the best thing in the world,” Potlock recalled. “His face just lit up when we even mentioned it.”
On the day of the deposition, along came Tallahassee lawyer Bobbie Jo Finer on one end of a leash and her little Dachshund Piper Laurie on the other.
Piper immediately pads over to the little boy sitting on the floor in the state attorney’s children’s play area and covers his face with licks and kisses.
The little boy flashed an ear-to-ear grin.
“So, you know, on a day that could have been very traumatic and tense and awful, he couldn’t wait to come back to the courthouse if he got to see Piper again,” Potlock said. The Pet Therapy in the Courts Program is unique in the Second Circuit, where 15 teams of volunteers and their specially trained and certified Companions for Therapy (ComForT) dogs help victims of violent crimes and children in dependency court feel less scared about testifying or talking to the judge.
“Our role is to spend time with the victim while they are either waiting to do a deposition or go into court and testify, knowing they are going to have to see the abuser,” said Finer, recently retired after 22 years as assistant general counsel for the Department of Community Affairs.
The owner of five Dachshunds and foster mom to four others, Finer employs Piper, the frisky one who can’t hold her licker, and Honey Girl, the mellow one with the wiggly tail, as therapy dogs for the courts.
She’ll never forget the deposition of a 14-year-old girl testifying about sexual abuse.
“She sat there with Honey Girl in her lap, and I sat quietly nearby holding Honey’s leash. The young woman stroked her the whole time she was giving testimony. This little dog helped her relax. It helped her get through it.”
And the defense attorney didn’t object.
“People see they are getting better testimony, and it’s a good thing for both sides,” Finer said.
In the Tallahassee area, 146 ComForT dog teams have long been used to cheer up the elderly in nursing homes, help motivate stroke victims at the hospital learning to walk again and even encourage school children to read.
But it was a new trick to bring the dogs to court, making the most of what dog lovers already know: Petting a dog has a soothing effect; hugging a dog is a pleasant distraction. Going to court is intimidating for anyone, and especially so for young child victims. So why not use dogs in court?
Dog Day at Dependency Court
Wakulla County Judge Jill Walker seized the opportunity to bring dogs to dependency court in December.
“Dogs are working the halls, so to speak,” Judge Walker said of her emphasis on family-centered hearings. While waiting for their cases to be called, children and their family members wait in a grand jury room with a guardian ad litem, or by court appointment for the suit. Children are given free books and their own quilt handmade by elderly volunteers. And a dog wags a tail nearby, ready for petting and hugs.
“The dogs really, really help relax the kids and give them something to have fun with and occupy them while they are waiting to come into the courtroom,” Walker said. “The result is that when I get people coming into court, they are not loaded for bear. It makes my job easier. It gives me an entry way, and we talk about the dogs. I’ll ask: ‘Which dog do we have in the hall today? Did you like the dog?’ And they see I’m not the judge from the old-timey movies that they need to be afraid of.”
The easier it is for children to talk to her, Judge Walker said, the more information she can gather to make better decisions. One thing she’s learned being on the bench for 20 years is that it’s futile to wait for more funding to arrive to improve the courts.
“The money is never going to arrive,” she said. “How do we make things better? The pet therapy costs zero money.”
The Pet Therapy in Courts Program was launched in 2007, after Susan Wilson, director of research and data for the Second Circuit, read a newspaper story about a victim advocate with a service dog in Polk County who noticed children bonded with her dog.
Wilson, who has a therapy dog of her own (a white miniature Schnauzer named Lacey) struck up a conversation with Potlock about the article. They were gung-ho to give therapy dogs a try.
First, Wilson asked Chief Judge Charlie Francis, who said, “I thought it was interesting from the start. We already had teddy bear therapy that we use with children who have gone through traumas. I thought it could work, right off the bat, if the dogs were properly trained and properly controlled. I have no problem. I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
Francis said he hasn’t heard any negative comments and the dogs have not yet come inside the courtroom during a trial, but Francis said he thinks that would work, as long as it is done in an unobtrusive way. But he is quick to add the trial judge has control of his or her own courtroom, and it is that judge’s call.
Potlock said her staff attends every first appearance hearing, and they let each victim of a violent crime know about the option of the Pet Therapy in the Courts Program, but so far it has only been used with child victims.
On her desk, she keeps a little booklet of pictures and profiles of the pet therapy teams — such as the 180-pound canine described as “a big goofball.”
Stephanie Perkins, volunteer services program coordinator for ComForT, does her best to match up teams with the right victim/witness. Perkins said she thinks the dogs are especially suited to their new courthouse roles “because they help provide an atmosphere of acceptance and support to the victim. They do not judge, and I feel that is very important to the victims. I certainly only have anecdotal evidence due to the sensitivity of these cases and the victims involved, but I do believe it works.”
State Attorney Willie Meggs admitted when he was first asked about using the dogs: “My first blush was typical of me: ‘What?’” But any skepticism was swept away by positive results in prosecuting cases.
“These are well-trained, well-mannered dogs. What little kid, abused or not abused, doesn’t like a dog? And it apparently is working,” Meggs said. “Anything that helps the child victim that has to go through the trauma of a trial, I’m for it.”
Wilson jumped through a few hoops getting OKs from courthouse facilities management and legal staff. Risk management signed off after learning the program is registered with the national Delta Society, a sanctioning organization for more than 10,000 pet-partner teams around the world, and insurance is provided through them.
Rescued Dog to the Rescue
Therapy dogs are a completely different breed than service dogs that help the blind get around, sniff out drugs or skin cancer or find buried earthquake survivors. As Chuck Mitchell, a volunteer with ComForT, said: “Ours are there to touch and mess with. That’s what makes it unique. Our program is low-tech and high-touch.”
Mitchell teams up with Rikki, a Golden Retriever mix scooped out of Lake Pontchartrain as a 10-week-old puppy after Hurricane Katrina blew through the New Orleans area. Together, they have done more than 100 pet therapy visits to a variety of settings, but it’s the experiences at courthouses that have brought big guy Mitchell to tears.
He tells the poignant story of a seven-year-old girl who had been brutally sexually abused by a day-care worker when she was four. At first, she was able to tell only a little of what had happened to her mother and in front of a video camera, but then completely shut down. Months and then three years had gone by.
Mitchell and Rikki were called to the courthouse, where they sat on the floor with the little girl, who fed Rikki her favorite treat of baby carrots and stroked her silky golden fur. The prosecutor leaned over and gently asked, “Do you know what happened between you and Mr. ____?” Without looking up, the girl kept petting Rikki and began telling new details. She was able to make a statement, Mitchell said, and law enforcement had enough to arrest the man.
When it came time to give a deposition, the girl had her hand on Rikki’s leash as they walked down the courthouse hallway. And Mitchell, who tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, actually curled up under the table, holding Rikki’s leash and feeding her carrots.
Rikki rested her head on the lap of the little girl, who cried into the dog’s fur and spilled out her testimony.
“I wanted to bite the defense attorney’s ankles myself, and blame it on Rikki,” Mitchell said about the painful questions asked of the child victim for more than an hour.
Once back at the state attorney’s victim/witness room, Mitchell said, they received a call from the defense attorney, who basically said now that he realized the victim was able to testify, his client was ready to cut a deal.
Currently, Mitchell said, plea negotiations are underway.
“If this case goes to trial, we may be in the courtroom,” Mitchell said. “We will not be sitting in or near the witness box. I believe if we put a dog in a witness box with a child, it would create an overly sympathetic witness. I think we would sit behind the defendant in the courtroom spectators’ seats. The jurors will look at the victim. And the victim will be able to look past the defendant and watch me petting Rikki. And when she is through testifying, she’ll know Rikki will be there.”
Why does Mitchell, formerly the owner of a construction company and now a director of Premier Bank, do this kind of volunteer work?
“When I get to see my dog make a connection with somebody, and help relieve some of their pain or stress even for a few minutes, and light up their face, who wouldn’t want to be Santa Claus giving out a bag of smiles? And you have somebody tell you, ‘But for your dog, my child wouldn’t be able to get through this.’ This is the best giving back to the community I’ve ever done.”
This story was first published in The Florida Bar News.