A courtroom can seem a scary place and giving evidence in court is nobody’s idea of a great day out. The environment is often particularly intimidating for children, even if they are giving evidence from behind a screen or by video link from another room. Unfortunately, hearing the evidence of a child is often necessary to convict a criminal of a crime. Without the evidence, it is unlikely that justice will be served. This means that witnesses must relive some of the worst experiences of their life. Now, it is possible that more witnesses will receive the support of dogs while giving their evidence, says NBC5. There are dogs already in training to prepare for roles working in courthouses as a source of comfort for witnesses.
This is thanks to a new bill that is in the works in Washington called The Courthouse Dogs Act, which has been put forward by US Senator John Cornyn (R-TX). The bill would mean that trained and certified dogs could work in the courthouses to comfort witnesses as they give evidence against federal criminals. One organization that trains dogs for roles such as this is Canine Companions for Independence in Irving. This non-profit organization has been training assistance dogs since 1975. Once trained, the dogs offer support to children, adults, and veterans. The recipients of the dogs receive them completely free of charge. If the bill is passed, it will become possible for accredited comfort dogs to enter the courtroom. It is likely that they will be used for the most vulnerable witnesses, including children, as they attend court to testify.
Aubree Nicholas is an apprentice trainer for Canine Companions for Independence. She says that children and young adults can find the whole experience of attending court extremely stressful. They have already been through a lot, and they are fearful of the court process. Local district attorneys can request the presence of a comfort dog. Nicholas also says that the experience of attending court can cause some people emotional trauma. In turn, this can impact on a person’s ability to answer questions during proceedings. It is hoped that using comfort dogs will improve the court experience, reduce the amount of emotional trauma, and help witnesses to answer the questions accurately. According to Nicholas, there is evidence that emotional trauma can cause someone’s memory to become fuzzy. The hope is that the comfort dogs will have a calming effect on the witnesses that will help them to focus better and recall information from their memories.
The main role of the dogs is to have a calming presence to support the individual in the witness box. However, they are also trained to complete some practical tasks, such as grabbing items and taking tissues to people. Therefore, there is potential for them to become useful in the courtroom in a variety of ways. Although the bill passed the Senate in December 2019, Cornyn is now waiting to call for the House to take up the bill. It is believed that this will happen within the next few months. CCI has noted that although this is the first time there have been courtroom regulations in North Texas, there are already regulations in places in other counties, such as Alabama. There are even regulations in some other counties in Texas. In fact, there have been comfort dogs working in courtrooms across the United States and in several other countries for several years now. They have been particularly helpful in supporting child abuse victims in various locations across the United States.
PEW Trusts reported that there were a growing number of comfort dogs working in courtroom settings back in 2017. The report said that the trained dogs, which are sometimes called courthouse facility dogs, simply provide a supportive presence for witnesses. Jeanette Dalton, a Superior Court Judge of Kitsap County in Washington, has said that witnesses use the dogs in different ways. Some witnesses are happy to simply see the dogs, others want to stroke the dogs or hold the leash in their hand. Dalton has some first-hand experience of using the dogs in her courtroom. She has already seen witnesses use a comfort dog called Kerris, who is a Golden Labrador. Kerris supports children who have suffered physical or sexual abuse while they are testifying. The presence of the dog is intended to make the ordeal less terrifying for the children.
Since the dogs began being used in the courtroom, supporters have said that they have helped both children and vulnerable adults to cope with the ordeal. They believe that using dogs can make a significant difference. When the courtroom facility dogs are not working in the courtrooms, they are cared for by their handlers. These are usually people who already work in the courtroom environment, such as investigators, victim advocates, or prosecutors. Some of the dogs are also used to support juvenile offenders and veterans charged with an offense.
Although there is a lot of support for the use of these dogs, not everybody agrees that using comfort dogs in the courtroom is a good thing. Some defense attorneys have argued that having a cute dog sitting in the witness box can cause prejudice against a defendant. This is because the presence of the dog can make the witness seem more believable and the jury will then sympathize with them. Despite the objections, those against the use of courtroom facility dogs are in the minority. Most people who work in courtroom environments believe that the work of the dogs has a positive impact on the courtroom experience of the vulnerable people who need support the most. If this new bill gets passed, then witnesses appearing in court in North Texas can benefit in the same way as witnesses who have appeared in courts across the United States who already utilize courtroom facility dogs.