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Thursday, August 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Courthouse dog puts children, the vulnerable at ease

A young mother sat before a judge in Sandpoint last week and gave a heart-wrenching statement about the sexual abuse of her 21-month-old daughter.

“I’m here today to see that man is put away behind bars for what he did to my baby girl,” she said.

Two attorneys sat between her and her ex-boyfriend, who was about to be sentenced to prison for lewd conduct with a minor.

Scenes like this are all too common in courtrooms. But on this day, for this nervous and devastated mom, there was something new.

At her side all morning was the reassuring presence of Ken, a retriever mix with a sweet face and a serene disposition. Waiting for her turn to speak, the woman sat in the gallery with friends at her side and Ken’s head resting in her lap. Then he lay at her feet as she described the pain and shattered trust the abuse had wrought.

It was the first time Ken had accompanied a person appearing before a judge in a Bonner County courtroom, but the 2 1/2-year-old dog had been preparing for it his entire life.

Ken was trained by Canine Companions for Independence to provide emotional support to victims, witnesses and others in a judicial setting. He wears a Canine Companions vest when he’s working. And for a young dog who loves to run and play catch, Ken transforms into an affectionate old soul when he’s on duty.

“His behavior and temperament are what make him great as a facility dog, because he’s obviously very chill. He’s pretty relaxed,” said Peggy Frye, a Victim Witness Unit coordinator in the Bonner County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Ken joined the staff in August and works full days Monday through Friday. Frye is his primary handler, and he slumbers on a large bed in the corner of her office. Ken also lives with Frye, her husband, their three teenagers and “one grumpy cat right now,” she said. “Turbo is not a Ken fan. He’s slowly coming around.”

But Ken is a popular addition in the prosecutor’s office. His presence has lifted morale, Frye said.

“We’ve had some upsetting cases recently here. And probably the one thing that really carries us through is Ken,” she said. “When we take a hit and we come back feeling defeated, Ken just doesn’t care. He wants to play ball. And he gets you out of your funk.”

Comfort for victims

Ken’s primary role is to comfort crime victims and witnesses as they meet with attorneys and prepare to go into court. Eventually he is expected to accompany witnesses on the stand, too.

Studies have shown dogs like Ken can lower a person’s blood pressure and keep hormone levels in check, said Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a retired deputy prosecuting attorney who started the nonprofit Courthouse Dogs Foundation in Bellevue, Washington, to promote use of these dogs in the legal system.

“The other things that we hear from a lot of victims and witnesses is that the dog makes them feel safe,” O’Neill-Stephens said.

“When you have high emotions that take over your body – fear, anxiety, anger – you’re less articulate. It impairs your ability to speak,” she said.

A special emphasis of Ken’s calming effect will be abused children who struggle through a legal process that has them tell strangers, over and over, the bad things that have happened to them.

“They’re speaking maybe to a deputy, then they have to talk to a detective, then they get scheduled with a forensic investigator. And all of these people they’ve got to tell all this icky stuff that they don’t want to talk about,” Frye said.

The ordeal may continue as the child meets with a prosecutor and Frye, then walks into a courtroom full of people, including the person who abused them. She hopes to introduce Ken to those most vulnerable victims early on when the child is first asked to disclose details of abuse.

“We would like to have Ken brought in so he can be that constant face through it all. As the kid is meeting all these different strangers, Ken could walk him or her through that whole process and try to make it a little more comfortable for them,” she said.

In the first case Ken worked, he spent time with a family that was terrorized in an attempted home invasion robbery in October 2014. The assailant, a convicted killer, broke into their waterfront house and attacked the father with bear repellent. The victim, his wife and their daughter barricaded themselves in a bedroom, and the attacker fled.

The daughter, who now is 20 and attending college, said she was more angry than fearful when she faced the defendant in court in his September trial for aggravated battery and burglary.

“When I actually saw him, I felt so much anger that I never felt before. I wanted to see this guy dead, really. I was so angry and so upset,” said Mala, who asked that her last name not be used.

Ken relieved her stress and helped her stay composed in the courtroom.

“I felt way happier. I didn’t even really think about the case anymore. I was just having fun with this dog. And he was so funny and adorable,” she said. “He was always there, and he was giving me kisses all the time, and I got to play fetch with him. It just made the whole experience lighter and better.”

Use of dogs is growing

Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall, who personally handles almost all child abuse cases in the county, said he supports bringing in a courthouse dog primarily to comfort those children.

“This has actually been one of the most positive things in my tenure as prosecuting attorney,” Marshall said. “And I’m really just ecstatic about the enthusiasm that Ken has caused, not only within my office but within the whole criminal justice community. Even the public defender’s office was excited about Ken.”

Ken is available for use by public defenders, who also represent children and family members in need of emotional support. The dog was present at Bonner General Hospital for the exams of two women who were sexually assaulted, and Frye recently took him to Sandpoint High School after the death of a student.

“He’s just here to hand out love,” Frye said. “He doesn’t care who you are. He doesn’t care if you’re a defendant, a victim, a witness. He doesn’t care if you’re rich, poor, what clothes you have on. He’s neutral.”

Canine Companions trained Ken from birth at its Oceanside, California, campus. The nonprofit group provides its dogs free of charge, as well as a $1 million insurance policy for each, and also provides training for handlers, including learning dozens of commands the dogs are taught. Bonner County pays for Ken’s food and veterinary care.

In addition, representatives of the Courthouse Dogs Foundation spent two days in Sandpoint to instruct the prosecutor’s staff, judges and attorneys in how Ken works and how to use him in the criminal justice system.

“When I first started this it was extremely difficult to convince people this wasn’t just some gimmick,” said O’Neill-Stephens of the foundation.

The organization has developed working standards to ensure the dogs do not make a witness more sympathetic to a jury or create prejudice against a defendant.

Advocates have won six appellate court decisions validating the use of courthouse dogs, and more than 90 of the dogs are working around the U.S. That includes Ada County in Idaho and Kitsap, Pierce, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston and Clark counties in Washington.

The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office was the first in the nation to use a courthouse dog. Ellie, who spent 11 years helping thousands of children and adults in King County, died three weeks ago.

“Over the course of her career she helped thousands of people in drug court, juvenile detention, mental health court, in trials and forensic interviews,” O’Neill-Stephens said.

Ellie helped save taxpayers the expense of many trials because she put victims and witnesses at ease, helping them give fuller statements to investigators and prosecutors, she said. That evidence encouraged some defendants to accept plea deals, she said.

“You can’t see the savings benefit upfront, but you can certainly see people’s emotions when they’re with the dogs, and really that’s payment enough.”

Wendy J. Olson, the U.S. attorney for the District of Idaho, recently met Ken, and now her Boise office is exploring if it’s feasible to bring on a courthouse facility dog at the federal level.

“We’ve been convinced by what we’ve seen with Ken and the Courthouse Dogs Foundation program that it is a really good tool for our office to better serve victims,” Olson said.

The dogs have been used in some federal trials, including the Boston Marathon terrorism trial, but none has been placed yet in a U.S. attorney’s office, she said.

Olson said she thinks a courthouse dog would be useful in federal cases such as child pornography, hate crimes and financial fraud in which victims lose their life savings.

After last week’s hearing on lewd conduct, Ken returned to the prosecutor’s offices next door to the district courthouse and was rewarded with a few minutes of catch in the narrow hallway. The staff is used to the exuberant commotion.

“He’s so happy and lovable,” Frye said. “If you bring a tennis ball out and he doesn’t have his vest on, he’s just a normal dog that wants to play.”

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