Thursday, September 24, 2015

Assistance Dogs of the West finds role for its grads in the courtroom

An abused 8-year-old boy would only talk to one living creature — Russell the golden retriever.

The boy’s family in Tucson, Ariz., made him stay outside with the animals, said Kathy Rau, executive director of the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center in Tucson. She said the boy was so traumatized that he would not allow investigators to interview him.

But he connected with Russell. “We just let the boy come to the center and have time alone where he could just sit and talk to Russell. He figured it was a safe place for him to come and talk,” Rau said in an interview Tuesday.

Russell is a 2013 graduate of the Assistance Dogs of the West program that is based in Santa Fe. He is one of a growing number of assistance dogs that child advocacy agencies and courthouse staff train to provide emotional support for children who are either victims or witnesses in cases involving physical, domestic and sexual abuse.

“The court system can be cold and scary, even for adults,” said Jill Felice, founder and program director of Assistance Dogs of the West. “Dogs in the courtroom can help children find their voice to tell their story.”

Assistance Dogs of the West will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a graduation ceremony at 6 p.m. Thursday at the James A. Little Theater on the campus of the New Mexico School for the Deaf. The ceremony will be hosted by actress and animal activist Ali MacGraw.

Long an organization that has trained dogs to give emotional and physical support for clients with disabilities, Assistance Dogs of the West began placing dogs in judicial districts in New Mexico, Arizona and California in 2010. That move followed the founding of Courthouse Dogs in Washington state in 2008.

New canine graduates Dozer and Lupe are about to begin work for the Bureau of Victim Services in San Bernardino County, Calif. Flerida Alarcon, the victim services chief for that bureau, is in Santa Fe this week to attend their graduation ceremony.

Alarcon said she already has introduced the two dogs to court personnel, including judges and prosecutors, to give them a sense of how the canines can be of help in cases involving children. She also has involved the dogs in preliminary interviews with some children who are either witnesses or victims.

“For them being in court is a sensitive situation. … So having a dog there does lighten the mood for them,” Alarcon said. “I tell the kids, ‘The dog is here to listen to you.’ ”

The Americans with Disabilities Act allows assistance dogs to be permitted in any public building. But Alarcon said in California, lawyers have the right to object to their presence, citing concern that the dog may draw sympathy from the jury.

Dogs have a history of being allowed in court cases requiring sensitivity. In the late 1980s, for example, a seeing-eye dog named Sheba provided comfort for child victims of sexual abuse at the district attorney’s special victims bureau in the Queens borough of New York City.
Felice said dogs working in the courts have to exude patience and tolerance. “They have to be sensitive, but not needy,” she said.

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