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Meet the ‘courtroom dogs’ who help child crime victims tell their stories

May 27, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Getting child crime victims to open up is never easy for investigators and asking them to tell their stories to a jury can be brutally traumatizing. To help these kids overcome their fears, some courtrooms across the country are employing comfort dogs, canine companions who take the stand alongside them to calm and bolster their spirits. Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Dogs have long been used in classrooms for children with special needs, as visitors in senior citizens’ homes, and as comfort for patients in hospitals.

Now canine companions are being used to help crime victims cope with the aftermath of violence and abuse.

Special correspondent Kathleen McCleery has our story.

MICHAEL RAMOS, District Attorney, San Bernardino County: Hey, you’re here, too? Wow, OK. Come here, buddy. How are you? I hear you have been busy in court, huh?

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: In San Bernardino, California, two black Labradors are regulars in the district attorney’s office.

Three-year-old Dozer and 2.5-year-old Lupe are among DA Michael Ramos’ newest staff members, part of a special victims canine unit. Last August, they were officially sworn in, paws on a California criminal law book.

The dogs’ job is to reduce fear and help some of the most vulnerable victims, many of them children, feel comfortable in court.

MICHAEL RAMOS: They have never been in a courtroom, you know, in their lives, and add on top of that, they’re going to have to discuss, and tell a jury about how they were either physically abused, sexually abused, and have to relive those horrible moments in their lives.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Dozer was detailed to a case in juvenile court late last year.

PEARL CURIEL, Mother: My daughters were a victim of abuse.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Pearl Curiel’s daughters had to testify.

GIRL: I felt nervous, because the judge is like right there, and you just look up at the judge and you think, I’m going to freak out.

GIRL: I felt kind of scared, but once I saw Dozer with me, I wasn’t scared anymore.

PEARL CURIEL: I couldn’t be right there, where the mom is supposed to be. I couldn’t hold my daughter and rub her back while she talked, you know? But he was. He was able to say, you know what, I’m not going to leave you. And I’m going to sit right next to you, and you can pet me, and you can talk to me, you know?

I don’t know if they would have made it through without him. It’s so silly, because it’s like it’s just a dog, you know, it’s just — but he is a superhero. Like, for my girls, I know he is.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Dozer’s handler, child advocate Yesica Cioli, believes the dog’s support will have a long-term effect.

YESICA CIOLI, Child Advocate, San Bernardino County: Whenever a victim gives their testimony, they feel empowered. So I think the girls getting up there, and telling their story, and telling what happened is the first step in them being able to overcome the situation and become survivors.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The other lab, Lupe, was tasked with calming two young boys, one allegedly abused by a relative. In April, the dog accompanied them on a mock run-through ahead of the actual trial.

D.J. ROSS, Child Advocate, San Bernardino County: I had a rape case for a child that was raped from the time he was 4 to 10, and was all alone and couldn’t tell anybody. It was very difficult for him to have to describe what he went through.

MICHAEL RAMOS: The young victim was really nervous, really stressed. And Lupe, our dog, picked up on it, and went up to him and nudged the young victim on the leg. The young victim started to pet the dog, rubbing his ears, and Lupe is on him. And he was able to relax, didn’t have the anxiety, and he was able to tell what happened to him.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: The dogs have their own office. Like humans here, they work a nine-hour day, and then go home with their handlers. It cost about $80,000 to start up the facility dog program in San Bernardino.

That includes a specially equipped van with windows that roll down if the temperature inside gets too hot and water bowls that won’t tip over. Officials expect the dogs to remain on the job for about nine years.

Judges have to approve before a dog can come to court. The jury is told in advance that the dog will be sitting here in the witness box, sight unseen. And defense attorneys have the chance to object.

Do you ever hear that the dog might be able to create some sort of sympathy for the victim? Is that a concern?

MICHAEL RAMOS: You know, that was a concern. In fact, there have been briefs written and motions written by attorneys, by district attorney’s offices when that issue comes up.

Once everybody gets comfortable with this whole new process, I don’t think you’re going to have that issue, because even the defense bar, all they want is the truth as well, and so do the courts.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Last year, Dozer and Lupe were deployed to the scene of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, along with two English Labrador retrievers.

Wally and Giovanni had recently joined the FBI as the bureau’s first crisis response canines. They comforted victims and families, and helped relieve stress when employees returned to work a month later.

Assistance Dogs of the West in Santa Fe, New Mexico, breeds and trains the dogs. They have placed 15 in judicial districts, and have at least eight more in the pipeline. They also provide dogs to individuals and organizations, but courthouse work is growing, says executive director Linda Milanesi.

LINDA MILANESI, Executive Director, Assistance Dogs of the West: We realized that this was an area that was really exploring something new, that had the potential to reach a lot of people, and that was really making a new map in the world, in the world, in the judicial system.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Most courthouse dogs are labs and golden retrievers, bred for good health and an even temperament. Intensive training starts early with lots of hands-on attention.

Professionals work with them one on one, often in public places. The dogs learn about 90 complex tasks. Children ages 8-18 teach them commands, too. High school sophomore Natalie Longmire-Kulis has been training dogs since she was 9.

NATALIE LONGMIRE-KULIS, Dog Trainer: The dog learns patience. They also learn how to be touched in different ways, because, obviously, 9-year-old hands are different from 18-year-old hands, and so they pet different ways, and they cuddle different ways, and their bodies are different.

So it really just allows the dogs to get used to different body types and different ways of handling.

JILL FELICE, Founder, Assistance Dogs of the West: Having the dogs being trained by students, one of the outcomes is they all learn to listen to little voices.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: Jill Felice founded Assistance Dogs of the West. She says the key to instilling calm and trust is simple science.

JILL FELICE: Dogs actually help us release oxytocin, which is the calming hormone and the bonding hormone, and when you are able to have that hormone going through your body, as opposed to the stress hormone, cortisol, it’s much easier to tell your story.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: After nearly two years of study, the dogs move on.

“Love Story” actress and animal lover Ali MacGraw presided over this year’s commencement ceremony celebrating 12 four-legged graduates. Among them were FBI dogs, Wally and Giovanni, who flew in from Washington for the festivities, and a labradoodle named Zeus who is headed to veterans court in Albuquerque to work with vets with combat injuries.

MacGraw believes the courthouse dog program uses compassion to promote justice.

ALI MACGRAW, Actress and Animal Lover: I’m so moved, especially in this crazy, often negative-sounding world that we — fear-driven that we’re in now, when I see that a few people can change the lives for the good of everybody involved, and I think it gives me hope.

KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Kathleen McCleery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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