One of the secrets for getting more sexual assault convictions across the line could be sitting right at your feet.
For many sexual assault victims, the prospect of telling their story can be extremely stressful. Many say they are re-traumatised by the whole experience.
For children especially, courtrooms can be highly intimidating places, which is why various states in America now allow specially trained ‘courthouse dogs’ to sit with, comfort, and soothe victims as they give evidence during police investigations, and later, in court.
Trained from when they are just two days old, these tiny pups become expertly skilled at remaining calm, regardless of how stressful or tense a situation gets. And it is this disposition, and the general calming effect of the dog’s presence, which is helping to soothe children and other trauma victims, so they can recount their whole story without becoming overwhelmed by the situation.
“Right from birth, even before they can see or hear, [the trainer] will start handling the puppy. They will put the puppy on a cool surface like a kitchen bench and then snuggle the puppy to warm it up. Introducing tiny little stressors like this makes the puppies very resilient to stress,” says Celeste Walsen, Executive Director of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation.
Then, between eight weeks and 18 months of age, the puppies are exposed to all sorts of people and situations: wearing “puppy training capes” they are taken to hockey games “where people are often upset and yelling”, restaurants, movie theatres, airports, city buses and so on. The pups then receive two years of professional training and are required to pass the same public access test given to guide dogs. So by the time they “graduate”, the dogs are completely at ease in working alongside trauma victims.
But while the dogs are said to derive great pleasure and fulfilment from their work, it is the benefits for the victims which are truly remarkable.
“One of the things that happens to trauma victims, is that they often find it difficult to calmly put together a chronological story of what’s happened to them,” says Walsen. So police interviews and cross examinations often distress victims and cause them to either dissociate from what is going on, or alternatively, to relive and re-experience the trauma as though it is occurring in real time. This “keeps them from telling their side of the story”, and causes many victims to “choke up” or “lose the ability to speak”, especially when pushed for details.
However, when victims are able to cuddle a facility dog, or watch it calmly sleeping at their feet, this can anchor the victim and help them feel safe, reassured, and in control.
“For a child or victim who is feeling anxious, the dog lying there quietly sleeping or even snoring, gives them the message it is a safe place.”
And the result? Children as young as four and five are finding the courage and composure to stand up and articulate their experiences. “We find that there are children who will say to us ‘I can’t tell you what’s happened to me, but I can tell the dog’. They then look into the dog’s non-judgemental face and begin speaking about what’s happened to them,” says Walsen.
Meet Caber, he’s a ‘courthouse dog’ helping sex abuse victims. (Post continues after gallery)
“We find that having these dogs present during the investigative phase is [highly helpful] and now, when defendants see the video tapes of the children giving evidence, they are pleading guilty because they hadn’t anticipated that a child could speak so articulately. This then saves the child from having to go to court.”
So why haven’t we introduced these dogs in Australia? We’ve already embraced working dogs in the areas of disability and policing, and many hospitals and nursing homes see the benefits of comfort dogs. Sexual assault advocates also strongly support the introduction of these dogs, including Karen Willis, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, who says that “anything that is going to make a complainant feel less traumatised in the process is a good thing.”
Sadly, the answer is an all too familiar one: lack of appropriate funding.
This is one ‘courthouse dog’ working in the field. (Post continues after video)
According to Walsen, she and her colleagues have expressed a keen interest in coming to Australia on multiple occasions, and are still hoping to run introductory training sessions with prosecutors and law enforcement. However nothing is planned at this stage as she and her colleagues have been told that the cost is “prohibitively” expensive.
This is despite mounting evidence that these dogs are proven to play a genuine role in reducing victim stress, and in facilitating justice.
This is despite our currently woeful conviction rates in sexual assault cases.
Instead, victims in Australia are offered one of two other choices: they can have a support person present (whom they are not allowed to touch) and/or they are permitted to carry a ‘comfort item’ during trial, such as a doll, blanket or teddy bear (although these tend to infantilise the victim and may mark the victim as vulnerable. This can prove very unhelpful when trying to establish the credibility of the victim before a jury.)
“Of the three options [on offer to victims in America], the facility dog is by far the most legally neutral,” says Walsen, adding that a dog can’t be accused of “leading” a victim.
And given that Canada, Chile and 28 states in America have now embraced these dogs, perhaps it’s time Australia did too.
Do you think having dogs in the courtroom is a good idea?
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