There is a bill on the desk of Governor Bruce Rauner in Illinois that could potentially change the way young victims of crime deal with the time they have to spend in the courtroom. The Daily Herald of Arlington Heights reports on a bill that would allow specially-trained dogs to accompany children in the courtroom who were the victims of physical or sexual abuse.
Witnesses who are 18 years or younger would be affected by the passing of this bill. Already approved by Illinois legislature, this bill would allow facility dogs which are accredited by Assistant Dogs International to be utilized to comfort young witnesses.
One such dog, named Mitchell was donated by Support Dogs, Inc. of St. Louis to Lake County’s State Attorney, Michael Nerheim. His office in Northern Illinois has this yellow Labrador Retriever working for them full-time. This office is said to be the only one in Illinois to have a full-time facility dog.
Nerheim explains that Mitchell is meant to be a calming presence to children who have to speak about stressful or scary moments in their lives. He says that the children love to reach out and pet Mitchell as they are telling their story. The process of speaking with prosecutors is made a little easier by the calming presence of this facility dog.
Nerheim appeared before a senate state committee to support the bill to have these special service dogs in the courtroom. It would be up to the Judge whether or not they feel the facility dog is needed. Should the bill be passed, it would make Illinois the third state to have a law about dogs in the courtroom.
Dogs who are accredited by Assistance Dog International must have the following qualifications. They have to “quiet, unobtrusive and emotionally available” for the witnesses. These specially-trained dogs should be able to sit or lie down beside the witness for a long period of time. The dog cannot show any behavior that would be considered a distraction in the courtroom, and they have to be able to help the witness for as long as it is needed.
In order for the process to be successful, the dog and the witness should have an opportunity to bond with each other in interviews that happen before the actual trial takes place. The use of these special dogs is only intended to happen when the witness has been shown to really need this form of extra support.
The American Bar Association reports on the significance of having a service dog in the courtroom. They explain that for centuries, therapists, sociologists, pediatricians and psychologists have “devoted countless hours researching the physiological benefits of human-animal interaction,” and that “such studies have shown that the mere presence of a friendly animal can result in decreased anxiety and lessened sympathetic nervous system arousal.” They say that because of these studies, many in the criminal justice system have been convinced of the positive effect that dogs can provide for comfort, specifically to victims of child abuse.