Courthouse Dogs Calm Testifying Juveniles

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“Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation and almost as good for the soul as prayer.” ― Dean Koontz, False Memory

Several programs exist across the country in which prosecutors and defense counsel use professionally trained dogs to help ease the anxiety juveniles experience while being interviewed or testifying in court.  Oftentimes, juveniles must discuss details of physical or emotional abuse, and having an affectionate, yet unobtrusive dog nearby helps ease the stress.  Research has shown that within as little as five minutes of petting or interacting with a dog, a person’s heart rate and blood pressure lowers; breathing becomes more regular; muscle tension is reduced; and speech, memory, and mental functions increase.  The physiological changes juveniles experience when courtroom dogs are around aid their ability to testify, which is extremely important because juveniles’ testimony needs to be as articulate and complete as possible.  In her article, Court Facility Dogs—Easing the Apprehensive Witness, Colorado attorney Gabriela Sandoval states, “The more at ease a child feels, the more effective his or her testimony will be.  Articulate testimony will assist in obtaining evidence that can either convict or exonerate the defendant.  When the child witness is comfortable, emotions may not obstruct or slow down important testimony.”

The Courthouse Dogs Foundation was founded with the mission “to promote justice with compassion through the use of professionally trained facility dogs to provide emotional support to everyone in the justice system.”  Their website, courthousedogs.com, recounts the positive outcome from a trial in which a testifying juvenile was allowed to be accompanied by a facility dog:

In September of 2012, in Snohomish County, WA, Mary Mazalic was brought to trial for starving, beating, and burning a ten-year-old girl.  Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lisa Paul filed a motion in limine to ask the court’s permission to allow facility dog Stilson to sit at the feet of this child victim while she testified in court.  Her brief included an affidavit from victim advocate Heidi Potter, Stilson’s handler, documenting how Stilson provided comfort to this child during the investigative phase of these crimes.  The judge found that this child suffered emotional trauma from these events. 
 The defense did not object to the presence of Stilson with the agreement that he would be concealed by the witness box and the jury would not be aware of his presence.
  While in the witness box, Stilson remained calm and out of sight during the lengthy direct and cross-examination.  He did not even move when defense counsel spilled a glass of water into the witness box and several people moved to this area to clean up the water.

The defendant was convicted as charged.

After the trial, jurors stated they did not know that a dog was in the courtroom.  Stilson, the invisible dog, was bred, raised, and trained by Canine Companions for Independence.  His behavior exemplifies the high level of training of a facility dog.

This is only one of numerous success stories of facility dogs assisting in criminal, juvenile, and drug courts.  Additionally, these dogs visit juveniles in detention facilities and are a friendly presence during their recovery process.  Currently, there are courthouse dogs working in twenty-one states:  Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.

The unconditional love and support the courthouse dogs offer juveniles make them a positive counterbalance to the often overwhelming and stressful setting of the courts.  The placement of dogs in the courthouse is a wonderful program, which hopefully, will continue to grow and be implemented in more courts throughout the country.

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Above Photo:  Courthouse dog Russell, trained by Assistance Dogs of the West, works at the Southern Arizona Child Advocacy Center with Director Kathy Rau.  Photo courtesy Courthouse Dogs Foundation.

Intro Photo:  Molly B at the King County Courthouse. Molly B was bred and trained by Canine Companions for Independence.  Photo courtesy Courthouse Dogs Foundation and the Seattle Police Department.

For more information regarding the Courthouse Dogs Foundation or for starting a program for the use of courthouse dogs, visit courthousedogs.com.

New Texas Law Gives CASA Electronic Access to DFPS Case Files

On September 1, 2013, HB 1227/SB 963 went into effect. This new law requires that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) allow the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) assigned to an individual case to have electronic access to that DFPS case file. In addition, CASA can upload documents to the DFPS case file. San Antonio CASA says that the primary purpose for this new law is to create a way for CASA and DFPS to share information more efficiently and effectively.

Child Advocates, Inc., Harris County’s CASA program, says that it is important for CASA volunteers to be able to get information on the children they are appointed to in a timely manner. In addition, this new law is beneficial to DFPS, because CASA volunteers can easily share information vital to the case and the children’s wellbeing with DFPS caseworkers and supervisors. Child Advocates, Inc. provided this real life example to illustrate this:

“The following is an example of a case where the Child Advocate volunteer played an integral role in gathering information necessary to prepare for trial. The advocacy coordinator was able to bring about a critical change in the initial investigation. It became apparent the change was needed because of the information gathered by the volunteer.

This family is composed of a mother and her six minor children. The mother’s minor children have been removed from her home for the third time because of her drug use. The children were in foster care for approximately a year before they were returned home, however, after a few months after the children were placed at home, the mother tested positive for drugs again. After the children came into care again, the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) began working with the family. This included visiting with extended family members (which the caseworker had never met with). It was through these visits that the GAL discovered that the mother had been scapegoating (abusing only one of her children) during the time the children had been returned to her.

According to family members, the mother had expressed many times that she did not love this child and that she had never bonded with him. These family members had seen bruises on the child and the mother had told them that she had inflicted these injuries on the child. There had been a referral made to DFPS, but the alleged abuse had been ruled out. The mother had even made references to wanting to kill the child.

Once the advocacy coordinator was made aware of the allegations the relatives were making, she made a call to the doctor that saw the child upon his return into DFPS custody. The child’s physical condition was consistent with what the relatives were reporting.  He had tie marks around his wrists, bruises on his body, vitamin D deficiency, and was very malnourished. One of the relatives had seen the child tied at the ankles.

Since the children came back into care because of the mother’s drug abuse, the issue of this child’s physical abuse was being overlooked. The volunteers and advocacy coordinator were concerned that if the mother completed her drug treatment the children would be returned to her without the physical abuse being validated. This would likely result in the child being physically abused and neglected again. By anticipating this, the advocacy coordinator was able to use the information received by the volunteers to persuade DFPS to look back at the investigation that led to the children’s removal. Only the drug abuse was mentioned. The advocacy coordinator was able to contact supervisors and directors within DFPS in order to have physical abuse added as an allegation and subsequently a finding that the mother did abuse the child.

This result took weeks to accomplish. This information and validation of abuse will be critical at trial in order to make sure the children are not returned to this mother if she does not make the changes necessary to prevent the children from being abused again. Addressing only the drug abuse will not be enough.

This would not have occurred without Child Advocates’ involvement in the case.  Child Advocates’ volunteers were able to make phone calls, meet with families, and eventually uncover this information that would have remained hidden. This may eventually save the life of this child if he is not returned to his mother.”

Texas State Representative Dawnna Dukes supports the new law, because

“CASA volunteers have proven to be significant partners with the state in ensuring our most vulnerable children are safe and secure by prioritizing their well-being. No longer will CASA have to expend time-consuming visits to child protective services offices to review paper files. By providing electronic access to certain case files we are able to welcome a more efficient and effective system. This system provides the necessary tools for caseworkers to have the most up to date and accurate information; ensuring that every child’s best interest will be represented by his or her advocate.”

This requirement, though, is dependent on DFPS having the available financial resources to develop and implement the necessary internet application that would give CASA electronic access to DFPS records. The bill authorizes DFPS to use money appropriated to DFPS and money received as a gift, grant, or donation to pay for the costs of developing and maintaining the Internet application and authorizes DFPS to solicit and accept gifts, grants, and donations for such purposes.

Hopefully, noting the potential benefits for all parties involved, DFPS bureaucrats and the Texas legislature will allocate the necessary funds to implementing this new law.

For more information about Child Advocates, Inc., click here: http://www.childadvocates.org/

Photo courtesy of Texas CASA

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Child Abuse Impacts Brain Development

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has published an extensive new report on child abuse and neglect. Below is a summarized version of some of the report’s findings…

Elevated Risk Environments

The study highlights factors that create an “elevated risk” for child abuse and neglect to occur. Factors with the strongest support in scientific research and literature include: substance abuse, family history of child abuse and/or neglect, and depression. The study recognizes that other factors may also be associated with child abuse and neglect.

Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect

Abuse and neglect actually affects the way a child’s brain develops, therefore, creating lifelong consequences.

“Childhood abuse and neglect have a profound and often lasting impact that can encompass psychological and physical health, neurobiological development, relational skills, and risk behaviors.”

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Photo courtesy of the Child Advocacy Center of Galveston County

Scientific studies show that abuse and neglect affects the development of the “amygdala, a structure in the brain that is critically involved in emotion.” In addition, “a number of studies suggest that abuse and neglect are associated with functional changes in the prefrontal cortex and associated brain regions, often affecting inhibitory control.”

Children who suffer abuse and/or neglect are more likely to exhibit: deficits in executive functioning and behavioral regulation, academic problems, emotional processing deficits, attachment disorders, an inability to regulate their emotions when interacting with others, problematic peer relations, dissociation, post traumatic stress disorder, stunted growth, obesity, and heightened anxiety. This results in a high percentage of victims as they age to be institutionalized, struggle with various addictions, attempt suicide, and engage in sexual activity at earlier ages.

Hope through Early Intervention and Treatment

Early interventions and treatment can effectively work to reverse the negative effects. In a recent Washington Post Article, Mary Dozier, NAS report committee member and University of Delaware chairman of child development, stated that,

“the effects seen on abused children’s brain and behavioral development are not static. If we can intervene and change a child’s environment, we actually see plasticity in the brain. So, we see negative changes when a child is abused, but we also see positive brain changes when the abuse ends and they are more supported. Interventions can be very effective.”