Can trained dogs help trauma victims speak out?
Published Wednesday, January 16, 2013 11:27PM PST
Crown lawyers in Metro Vancouver may soon be using a trained assistance dog to help children and trauma victims feel comfortable speaking out.
Caber, a five-year-old Labrador, already works at the Delta Police Department as a trauma dog, but he’s the only assistance animal of his kind in the country.
Handler Kim Gramlich, who works with the department’s victim services division, said the dog has been instrumental in providing comfort in certain cases, including the murder of teenager Laura Szendrei in September 2010.
“Caber was asked to attend Laura’s classes and sit by her desk, where she would have been,” Gramlich said. “He reduces people’s blood pressure and calms people down.”
Now, justice officials say they’re considering whether to bring Caber into the Crown counsel office in Surrey to assist with cases.
“We are always interested in anything that can help us deal with our children or vulnerable witnesses,” said Crown spokesman Neil MacKenzie.
There are currently no plans to bring dogs directly into the courtroom during testimony, however, despite a similar program that’s already been operating in Washington State for a decade.
Advocates in the U.S. say the animals are key to helping children face embarrassing, traumatic experiences in front of strangers.
“We’ve had kids crawl off the witness stand,” said attorney Mark Roe, who prosecutes child sex offences in Snohomish County. “[They’ll] hide up in the witness box because they want to hide down behind something so the guy who did it to them can’t see them.”
Roe said he was initially skeptical about bringing dogs in court, worrying that young witnesses would find them distracting. But that changed once he saw the animals’ effectiveness first-hand.
“I saw a little kid walking down the hallway to talk to us… and the kid was terrified, and you could tell that the kid was hiding behind mom and peeking out from around the side of her. Right until the kid saw the dog, and you could just watch the tension just melt off.”
MacKenzie didn’t rule out the possibility of bringing dogs into courtrooms in B.C., but said there are a number of practical and legal concerns to work out first.
Authorities have to be sure the dogs wont create a health or safety concern, for instance, or even influence the jury in favour of a complainant.
“We have to be satisfied that the use of the dogs isn’t going to operate at all unfairly,” MacKenzie said. “Both the Crown and the courts have to be satisfied that the proceeding is fair, both to witnesses and to an accused person.”
For more information on trauma dogs, visit the Courthouse Dogs Foundation website.
With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Lisa Rossington