Bill introduced to expand access to courthouse dog program, with bipartisan support | February 16-22, 2022

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The state Legislature is considering a bill, sponsored by State Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Seattle), that would expand where courthouse dogs can go, helping traumatized witnesses who testify amid the coronavirus pandemic.

If passed, the bill (SB 5127) would allow certified dogs to travel on public transportation to other public places outside the courthouse if they are on official business. This includes witness houses. This is important as most court hearings are currently being held online due to the pandemic. Sometimes several visits between a potential witness, the dog and the courthouse dog handler are necessary to establish the relationship between the team and the witness.

Courthouse dogs have been used informally for over a decade to provide emotional support to witnesses while testifying. A 2019 bill (SB 5551) formalized the strategy, making Washington the first state in the nation to have a law allowing courthouse dogs to support witnesses on the stand.

Asking child or adult witnesses about a traumatic event in their lives can trigger an acute emotional reaction, such as a panic attack or nausea. Certain trauma responses can interfere with their ability to answer questions or testify in court about traumatic events they have experienced or witnessed, and courthouse dogs help ease anxiety and to support the witness during their testimony.

Dhingra previously served as King County’s senior assistant district attorney. She has seen firsthand the positive impact courthouse dogs have on witnesses. His colleague at the time, Assistant District Attorney Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, started the program informally more than a decade ago to help testify in child sexual assault cases and in court. juvenile drug addiction.

“It all started when I brought my son’s service dog to the courthouse in 2003. The dog’s presence was soothing to witnesses and defendants, as well as judges and lawyers. Judges asked me, ‘I had a tough day – can you bring Molly in?’ O’Neill-Stephens said.

“The impact of courthouse dogs is two-fold: they help reduce the added trauma of having to testify and engage with the justice system, and the fact-finding process is improved. A calmer witness is better able to describe what happened and gives the judge and jury more accurate information,” O’Neill-Stephens said.

“We have decided to impose legislative requirements around the program so that all courthouse dogs are trained and all judges are aware of the program allowing the use of a courthouse dog in any legal proceeding. “, said Dhingra.

The program has garnered international attention since its informal beginnings in 2003 and its transition to a formal organization, the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, in 2008. The foundation has approximately 13 teams across Washington and approximately 250 trained dogs nationwide. Courthouse dogs can now visit child advocacy centers, schools, daycares, law enforcement, law firms, medical facilities and other courthouse offices to support survivors of violence and abuse. They are different from service dogs or emotional support dogs in that they are specifically trained to work in a legal setting. Managers may include victim advocates, forensic investigators, detectives, prosecutors, guardians ad litem, therapists, and other professionals who work in the legal field.

“We now offer coaching and advisory services to courthouses around the world who are interested in adopting the courthouse dog program. There is an effort in Italy to bring dogs from courthouses to shelters for victims of domestic violence, and programs are springing up in Japan, Australia and Canada,” O’Neill-Stephens said.

According to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, having a dog in a courthouse can lower blood pressure and heart rate. The courthouse dog program is also an effective intervention for people with developmental disabilities and adults who have experienced childhood trauma. The innovative intervention has been used successfully in juvenile and adult drug courts, mental health courts, and in sexual assault cases for children and adults.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has classified testifying in court as a child as a “negative childhood experience”, meaning the retraumatization of being on the witness stand can have a negative impact on a child’s brain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has named the Courthouse Dogs Foundation as an effective trauma-mitigator because the presence of a dog helps regulate a child’s emotions.

“Children and survivors of violence have already experienced horrific trauma, and it can be difficult to relive that trauma when giving testimony. The dogs are invaluable support for the witnesses who tell their stories. Animals have healing energy, as far as I’m concerned,” said Senator Patty Kuderer, co-sponsor of the bill.

The bill’s sponsors do not anticipate any rejection of the bill, as it previously unanimously knocked it out of the Civil and Judicial Rights Committee.

“It’s one of those rare bills that has bipartisan support,” Dhingra said.

Kayla Blau is a youth advocate and writer. More of her work can be found at https://kaylablau.contently.com.

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