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Courtroom canines comfort victims and help vulnerable witnesses to voice their truth in court

'The presence of a supportive dog at all stages of a criminal prosecution is beneficial to the well-being of the victim and the pursuit of justice.'

Courtroom canines comfort victims and help vulnerable witnesses to voice their truth in court
Cover Image Source: Courthouse Dogs Foundation

The American Bar Association House of Delegates approved a very important resolution at its 2021 Midyear Meeting in an effort to assure "meaningful access to justice for all persons." The approved Resolution 101A urged all jurisdictions to permit a specially trained canine to accompany an anxious or traumatized individual who is testifying in court while also stressing the importance of ensuring these canines' welfare. Dozens of states across the United States already have programs that permit certified dogs to accompany victims and vulnerable witnesses in the courtroom.



 

In South Dakota, the law authorizes a court to allow "a child witness or a witness having a developmental disability to be accompanied by a certified therapeutic dog during the witness' testimony." Meanwhile, in New York, State Senator Pamela Helming sponsored a bill in February 2021 to amend the New York Judiciary Law to authorize a canine to accompany a vulnerable witness while they give testimony in the courtroom. Even in states where there are no explicit statutory laws about courtroom dogs, judges exercise their inherent power to determine whether to permit a canine to accompany a victim or vulnerable witness.



 

"Many victims in the Criminal Justice System do not have a 'trusted' individual to transfer the attachment to due to early experiences or recent events of the crime and that leads to a lack of disclosure and problems building trust... These dogs provide unconditional acceptance and love, and a sense of safety. Through the support they provide, dogs help to build rapport for many people who struggle to trust others," explained Dr. Elizabeth Spruin, a canine behaviorist and an investigative psychologist in the School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology at the Canterbury Christ Church University in England.



 

Spruin—who specializes in the use of dogs to support vulnerable victims of crimes and children with autism and emotional issues—pointed to the case of an eight-year-old girl and her two sisters who had been sexually abused by a relative. The young girl’s demeanor transformed when Spruin's facility dog Oliver was introduced into the interview room and she was able to open up and communicate in the canine's presence, the psychologist shared. Learning about Oliver also convinced the eight-year-old girl's two sisters to provide evidence in the case. Canine companionship "puts survivors and witnesses of crime, especially children, at ease to participate more comfortably, not only in legal proceedings but in forensic interviews and therapy sessions," explained New York State Ontario County District Attorney James Ritts, whose office is currently working with Juno, a two-year-old Labrador retriever that has supported at least a dozen crime victims.



 

"You can actually see the level of anxiety lessen to the point that conversation about these difficult experiences is possible," Ritts added, stressing that "this accommodation recognizes a crime victim's right to be treated with fairness and dignity." Michael Galantino, a special-victims prosecutor for 30 years and the executive director of the National Association of Prosecutor Coordinators, also supports having canines accompany both minor and adult vulnerable witnesses during in-court testimony. "The presence of a supportive dog at all stages of a criminal prosecution is extremely beneficial to the well-being of the victim and the pursuit of justice," Galantino said. "Young victims of sexual or physical abuse are already traumatized before they come into contact with the criminal justice system. Having a supportive dog near them for the forensic interview, trial preparation and testimony helps to reduce further trauma and facilitate communication."



 

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