For those who are victims of a crime, retelling the event can be traumatizing, especially in front of a room full of strangers. And when the alleged abuser is present, it may be downright impossible.
But New York City prosecutors have found a helping paw: Some law enforcement officials are now using dogs to help comfort crime victims before and after they testify in court.
Last week, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan introduced a new team member, Bronksey, a 2-year-old black Labrador and golden retriever mix.
Bronksey was donated by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a non-profit that trains and matches dogs with people in need, including crime victims. The dogs are trained to put children or adults at ease throughout the arduous criminal justice process.
“Imagine how difficult it is to tell strangers a horrific incident that has occurred to you,” said CCI’s northeast regional director Debra Dougherty. “The dog and the animal-human bond can overcome people’s anxieties and fears and give them the confidence to be able to tell their story, and then in turn … seek justice.”
The dogs are used to comfort victims before and after testimony. New York is part of a growing trend; dogs have been OK'd for courtroom use in states like Hawaii, Arizona and Idaho.
Two weeks ago, Bronksey helped a 12-year-old Staten Island boy testify about an abusive relative. The dog was not in the courtroom during the hearing, but the boy petted Bronksey before going into court, Dougherty said. When he came out, the child ran over and "gave him a big hug," she said.
While the use of Bronksey is new, in downtown Brooklyn a Labradoodle has been stationed at the city’s Family Justice Center since last year. The pooch is named Paz, or “peace” in Spanish; his middle name is “Jeter” after the famous Yankee. He was placed there through Pet Partners, a therapy animal program.
Paz pads in every Friday, offering a friendly furry face to families, especially children, fleeing abusive homes. Charley Bednarsh, the Center’s director of children’s services and who takes Paz home at night, said the canine is “magic” for shell-shocked kids.
“I’ve seen kids that come in agitated and frightened, and this dog just lies down, next thing you know, they fall asleep with their arms around him," she said.
Helps kids open up
When children are too scared to talk to an adult about their trauma, they will sometimes instead tell a dog, said Charley Bednarsh at the Family Justice Center.
“Children come in, they’re so traumatized they can’t really speak,” she said. “They just warm right up to him, and they’ll actually talk to him, talk to the dog.”
One 7-year-old girl witnessed a “horrific” assault on her mother last year, Bednarsh told Metro, and before she testified, she walked the courthouse halls with Paz on a leash.
Paz couldn’t go into the courtroom, so instead, during her testimony, Bednarsh said, “She took his picture with her, and she just clutched it.”
Controversy over the dogs
While the dogs can be helpful to prosecutors, not all are in agreement they should be used in the criminal justice system.
In one case in Poughkeepsie, New York last year, defense lawyers are appealing a rape conviction. Rosie, a golden retriever, sat at the feet of a 15-year-old girl as she testified that her father had raped and impregnated her.
After a judge convicted the man, and sentenced him to 25 years to life in prison, his lawyers appealed, arguing that Rosie's cuteness might have unfairly swayed the jury.
Rose “infected the trial with such unfairness” that the dog violated the father's constitutional rights, his lawyers claimed, according to The New York Times.
Pricey dog training
At Canine Companions for Independence, puppies are selected at eight weeks old. They are then placed with volunteers, who teach them basic commands and socialization.
When the dog is between 14 and 16 months, the volunteers turn the dog over to a CCI trainer for six months of advanced training and learning 50 specialized commands. They undergo a final test with trainers in a public setting like a mall, making sure the dog can go in and out of elevators and is not distracted by loud noises or volunteers who waive their hands.
Thanks to donations, CCI donates the dogs at no cost. But the total cost to breed, raise and train a dog is about $45,000.