We are all aware, of just how stressful things can get for a victim of a criminal offence to go through the entire court-proceedings, having undergone a traumatic experience already. The victim, literally, has to revisit the entire chain-of-events altogether to enumerate important case-points while deposing, which can result in mental breakdown at times. It becomes all the more harrowing for kids and older folks to withstand those pressure-situations. This is where ‘Courthouse Dogs’, a group that trains dogs, stepped in to make a difference.
Courthouse Dogs was founded by Ellen O’Neill Stephens and Celeste Walsen to help make the crime victims feel at ease while in court.
This nonprofit organization trains the dogs that can be used by law-professionals to help the victims and witnesses get over their stress.
These facility dogs are specially trained to help the professionals ease out their tension rather than helping a person with disability. Professionals, apparently, have seen qualitative improvement in their work. These dogs are also trained on court-specific Dos and Don’ts, like forming a bond with the victims who are to testify and not to cause a hindrance in courtroom-proceedings.
This whole idea was conceived by Ellen O’Neill Stephens while she was posted in a court as deputy prosecution attorney. “I saw how stressful it was for victims and witnesses to testify in trials. It seemed like there had to be a better way to seek the truth without causing emotional harm to people.”
“This idea occurred to me when my son, who is disabled, got a service dog named Jeeter. When I saw how comforting this dog was for him, and everyone else that encountered this dog, I realized that this type of dog could help people through the legal process.”
Not every dog can qualify for this job as there are strict selection parameters, put in place to screen out the refined ones. It normally takes up to 2 years to train a facility dog to bring it up to the required standard.
“Unfortunately, it takes some time on the waiting list to acquire a dog,” Courthouse Dogs says. “But it’s well worth the wait.”
Generally, the dogs that are gentle and meek in nature qualify for Courthouse Dogs’ training program. However, it does take quite some time to organize a dog facility program because of the involvement of many political stakeholders. The dogs have helped bring about many cases to their successful completion which in turn has given a major credence to the idea behind Courthouse Dogs.
Here is the story about a dog that went a long way in helping out a victim. She recalled saying:
“A five-year-old boy saw his mother severely beaten by her boyfriend. In addition to that, the boyfriend poured gasoline on his mother and him and threatened to set them on fire. The little boy made the 911 call, and he and his mother were soon placed in a shelter for their own protection.”
“However, the little boy was so traumatized by this, that he stopped talking altogether. When pressed, he would put his hand down his throat as if he were trying to vomit. He was brought into the King County Prosecutor’s office to speak with an interviewer about what happened.”
“After his mother explained to the interviewer that her son was unlikely to speak, the interviewer asked the mother if her son liked dogs. She said that he loved dogs. So, he meet a courthouse facility dog named Ellie, and the two of them played together before the interview began.”
“Once they began the interview, Ellie snuggled beside him and he was able to tell the interviewer what happened for the first time. When the boy would struggle for words, she would snuggle in closer”
“At one point after this happened, he told the interviewer, “see, Ellie loves me.” Because she was there to provide this comfort, he was able to finish the interview, and before they left the room, he kissed her.”
Currently the organization provides their services spanning across 28 states in the U.S. They also educate and advise lawyers and advocates on how to go about using the facility dogs. You can visit Courthouse Dogs website if you wish to know more about them.
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