The state legislature is considering a bill, sponsored by State Senator Manka Dhingra (D-Seattle), that would expand where courthouse facility dogs can go, helping traumatized witnesses who testify in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
If passed, the bill (SB 5127) would allow certified dogs to travel on public transportation to other public locations outside of the courthouse if they’re on official court business. This includes the homes of witnesses. That’s important, because most court hearings are currently held online due to the pandemic. Sometimes it requires multiple visits between a potential witness, the courthouse facility dog and handler to establish the relationship between the team and the person providing testimony.
Courthouse dogs have been used informally for over a decade to provide emotional support to witnesses while providing testimony. A 2019 bill (SB 5551) formalized the strategy, making Washington the first state in the nation to have a statute allowing courthouse dogs to support witnesses on the stand.
Questioning child or adult witnesses about a traumatic event in their lives can trigger an acute emotional response, such as a panic attack or nausea. Some trauma responses can interfere with their ability to respond to questions or testify in court about traumatic events they have experienced or witnessed, and courthouse facility dogs help ease anxiety and support the witness during their testimony.
Dhingra was formerly a senior deputy prosecutor in King County. She saw first-hand the positive impact of courthouse facility dogs on witnesses. Her coworker at the time, fellow Deputy Prosecutor Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, informally started the program more than a decade ago to assist with testimony in child sexual assault cases and in juvenile drug court.
“It all started when I brought my son’s service dog to the courthouse in 2003. The dog’s presence was calming for witnesses and defendants, and also for judges and lawyers. I’ve had judges ask me, ‘I’ve had a rough day — can you bring Molly by?’” O’Neill-Stephens said.
“The impact of courthouse dogs is two-fold: They help reduce additional trauma of having to testify and engage with the court 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 decided to put legislative requirements around the program so that all courthouse facility dogs were trained, and all judges were aware of the program to permit the use of a courthouse facility dog in any judicial proceeding,” Dhingra said.
The program has gotten international attention since it informally began in 2003 and transitioned to a formal organization, the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, in 2008. The foundation has about 13 teams throughout Washington and about 250 trained dogs throughout the country. Courthouse facility dogs can now travel to child advocacy centers, schools, day cares, law enforcement agencies, legal offices, medical facilities and other court facility 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. Handlers can include victim advocates, forensic interviewers, detectives, prosecuting attorneys, guardians ad litem, therapists and other professionals who work in the legal field.
“We’re now providing coaching and consulting for courthouses around the world that want to adopt the courthouse dog program. There is an effort in Italy to bring courthouse dogs to domestic violence shelters, and programs are cropping up in Japan, Australia and Canada,” O’Neill-Stephens said.
According to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, the presence of a courthouse facility dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate. The courthouse facility dog program is also an effective intervention for people who have developmental disabilities and adults who experienced childhood trauma. The innovative intervention has been used successfully in juvenile and adult drug court, mental health court and in sexual assault cases for both children and adults.
The American Academy of Pediatrics classified testifying in court as a child as an “adverse childhood experience,” meaning that the retraumatization of being on the witness stand can negatively impact a child’s brain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named the Courthouse Dogs Foundation as an effective mitigator for this trauma, as the presence of a dog helps regulate the child’s emotions.
“Children and survivors of violence already went through horrible traumas, and it can be difficult to relive that trauma during a testimony. Dogs are an invaluable support to witnesses who are retelling their stories. Animals have healing energy, as far as I’m concerned,” said Senator Patty Kuderer, a co-sponsor of the bill.
Bill sponsors don’t anticipate any pushback for the bill, as it had previously made it out of the Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee unanimously.
“This is 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.
Read more of the Feb. 16-22, 2022 issue.