Court-system canine helps put kids at ease

Victims, witnesses open up to Carroll County prosecutors

June 02, 2008|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Buddy has a Carroll County government photo ID, a corner office and a golden badge that could rival that of a sheriff's deputy.

He also has a crate, chew toys and a weakness for treats.

The 10-month-old black Newfoundland- Labrador mix is one of the newest staff members in the county state's attorney's office: a therapy dog in training, brought on to work mainly with young victims and witnesses of crime.

Therapy dogs in the court system are fairly rare. They have popped up in places such as Florida, New York and Washington state over the years, but the Carroll state's attorney's office appears to be the first in Maryland to employ animal assistance.

"Children don't want to talk about bad stuff that happened, especially if it's somebody they loved or still love," said Joyce Schaum, director of the Carroll office's victim witness assistance unit, who adopted Buddy from the local Humane Society last fall. "Lots of times, they're told not to talk. ... They probably never were told not to talk to a dog."

A therapy dog can be a source of comfort in interviews with children, easing them into conversation, Schaum and prosecutors say.

"You bring him in any situation and people smile. They just melt," Schaum said.

Research has shown that therapy dogs can decrease stress levels after as little as five minutes, said Holly Chalk, assistant professor of psychology at McDaniel College in Westminster.

"It puts kids at ease," Chalk said, referring to studies that indicate children are more willing to share.

That calming influence could be attributed to an animal's ability to distract them from feeling anxious and the association of dogs with relaxation and leisure, Chalk said.

"There's something very reassuring about dogs," said Alice Vachss, a former chief of the special victims bureau of the Queens district attorney's office in New York. In the late 1980s, Vachss introduced Sheba, a retired guide dog, to the office as part of an experiment. The shepherd mix became a favorite among children, she said.

"When you're talking about this kind of victimization, feeling afraid is the predominant damage," said Vachss, who prosecuted sex crimes. The large dog "made them feel safe."

Programs such as Carroll's are a helpful tool in working with child victims, said Russell Butler, executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center.

"They need support services so that the system doesn't make them a victim the second time, by having to go through the court process," Butler said.

Prosecutors hope to eventually bring Buddy into the courtroom - with judges' permission - so he can help those who need support while sitting in the witness stand, said Jerry F. Barnes, Carroll's state's attorney.

Many of the techniques tried with young witnesses - such as closed-circuit TV - have met resistance because of concerns that they could affect testimony, Vachss said. "Nobody can say the dog is feeding a child the answers or influencing the testimony in any way. ... It's a way to give a very vulnerable witness strength."

Buddy - named for retired Carroll prosecutor Clarence "Buddy" Beall - sits in on about eight interviews a month, Schaum said, and comes to the office about three times a week.

His role garnered state recognition this spring, earning Barnes and Schaum a Governor's Victim Assistance Award.

Schaum plans to register Buddy as a full-fledged therapy dog with the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization that specializes in therapy animals and service dogs, when she feels he is predictable and no longer easily excited by children and other canines.

"He has still a lot of puppy in him," she said, smiling, in her office one recent afternoon.

Buddy lay serenely in his crate - eyes closed, head resting between his front paws.

Walking to a grassy area near the courthouse later, the puppy shone through as he sometimes tugged the blue leash in Schaum's hand.

Schaum points to the experiences of counterparts in Washington state as an indication of the animals' potential.

"It's really made a profound impact on these victims," Page Ulrey, senior deputy prosecutor for King County, said of the Labrador-golden retriever mix, Ellie, that her office brought in more than two years ago to work with child abuse victims and the elderly.

"Ellie has been very successful in reducing kids' fear of coming into court," Ulrey said.

The dog has attended sentencings, stood by children as they testified, and waited outside court with them before they took the stand, said Carolyn Webster, a child interview specialist with the King County prosecutor's office. Carroll prosecutors said they already have seen the benefits of Buddy's presence.

In one case, a 4-year-old girl who had been physically abused by her baby-sitter made a beeline for Buddy when she entered the office, Schaum said, throwing her arms around his neck before taking his leash and asking, "Can I walk him?"

"Now we get kids that don't want to leave," she said.

Amy Blank Ocampo, a senior assistant state's attorney who deals mostly with sexual assault, child and sex abuse cases, had a similar experience with two young girls who had been victims of their grandfather.

"They were so excited to meet [Buddy] that they couldn't wait to come back to our office," Ocampo said.

The girls, who were 7 and 8, were disappointed when they realized that they wouldn't be returning after the case ended, Ocampo said. "We don't normally see that."

Buddy gets kids talking, she said. His habit of becoming the focal point in meetings has led Ocampo to consider rearranging her office to allow for more floor space.

The dog also seems to set parents' minds at ease, she added.

"It really shows them that we really are doing what we can not to revictimize them," Ocampo said. "It's not all about us winning a case."

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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