By WILLIAM LEE, Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO (AP) — Hatty, the Cook County state’s attorney’s first-ever courthouse comfort dog for young abuse victims, only got through one case before the pandemic closed courtrooms and left her on the sidelines.
But as court operations have resumed in recent months, Hatty’s human handlers — a veteran prosecutor and victim witness specialist — said the highly trained 4-year-old black Labrador is ready to get back to helping young abuse victims find their voice, the Chicago Tribune reports.
Hatty is one of a growing number of courthouse comfort dogs used throughout the country since such programs began in the late 1980s. As of December, 273 courthouse dogs work across 41 states, according to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, a nonprofit that champions the use of such dogs. Lake, Will and Kane counties are among those in Illinois that use the program, according to the organization.
The courthouse dog program is proving to be so popular that it is expanding outside the United States in places such as Canada, Europe, the United Kingdom and South America.
For some young victims, the Labrador’s calm, friendly demeanor quickly brightens what would ordinarily be a melancholy affair dealing with painful memories. Both of her handlers have witnessed firsthand the power of Hatty’s gentle presence. Victim witness specialist Stephanie Coelho recalled a recent instance of a young girl who had been nearly silent when questioned about past instances of abuse — until she met Hatty.
“The kid would not say anything,” Coelho said recently while sitting with Hatty and her partner Jillian Anselmo inside a “soft room” at the state’s attorney’s offices at West 26th Street and South California Avenue.
“She was just terrified. She definitely didn’t want to talk about the abuse,” Coehlo said. “Fast-forward to a few weeks ago and I introduce her to Hatty, and the moment Hatty gets on the couch with her she hugs Hatty and you could just see that anxiety shed away and fall off.”
“She did a full prep, talked about all of the abuse and what she needed to do for her testimony down the road. She did a very good job. There were struggles, but she talked about it in ways that she never talked about it before in previous meetings.”
“It’s amazing — it’s like flipping a switch,” said Anselmo, an assistant state’s attorney who shares dog care duties with Coehlo. “That’s kind of her magic — that she’s kind of a lump. She’s very calm and comfortable.”
Hatty’s assignment during trial is a choreographed affair. Both Hatty and the child are put into the witness box outside of the presence of the jury, and Hatty sits at the child’s feet during the testimony. Most of the time, the jury never sees her.
The use of dogs like Hatty helps combat an age-old dilemma involving young abuse victims who struggle to speak about their experiences in court. Getting abused children to open up can be a delicate process. Prosecutors are trying to create a bond with the victim to make them feel safe enough to retell their trauma in open court, all while trying to avoid any emotional triggers.
“One of the bigger problems is … that the kids shut down and you get nothing,” said Anselmo, who works with sex abuse and domestic violence victims. “They’re on the (witness) stand, they’re sworn in and ready to go, but they’re not responsive at all. All we’re trying to do is give them the ability to speak and give us the facts and tell us the truth about what happened to them.”
After young victims are interviewed by police investigators, Anselmo and Coelho say they first gauge their comfort level with speaking before they conduct their first interview. If the child is comfortable around dogs, they may introduce Hatty at an early stage.
“We don’t want to talk about the facts at the first meeting,” Anselmo said. “We need these kids to get comfortable with us, and the biggest part of building the rapport with the children is having (Hatty) there. If this child doesn’t trust the three of us, it’s going to be a long, hard road.”
Courthouse dogs are different from other types of service animals because of the extensive training they receive. Dogs like Hatty are screened for temperament before they begin their training at just 3 weeks old and work with an assorted number of trainers.
Duo Dog, the St. Louis nonprofit that trained Hatty, said its dogs undergo two years of training at its 20,000-square-foot facility before they are placed. After placement at a courthouse, the dogs are cared for by professionals such as prosecutors, law enforcement officers and even judges in different jurisdictions.
“Hatty has different commands where she can sit at their feet, lay at their feet, put her head in their lap while sitting on the floor next to them. Most kids prefer to have them just like this on the couch,” said Coelho as Hatty laid across her lap.
“She is perfect for this type of job because she’ll sit with kids and be dead silent. She went on to advanced training to become a facility dog. That’s kind of like the upper echelon of service dogs,” Coehlo said.
Prosecutors are required to file a court motion seeking a judge’s approval before a courthouse dog is used during proceedings.
Nationally, the use of the courthouse dogs has been marginally controversial as some defense attorneys have shown concern, fearful that the presence of the dog would put their clients at a disadvantage, but Hatty has not been rejected at any trials for which the state has sought to use her.
“Most of the judges are really cool with this,” Anselmo said. “They are really comfortable with this, because we definitely balance the rights of the defendant for what we’re trying to do here.”
After hours, Hatty is like any other dog. She loves her toys and treats and cuddling. Sharing dog duties requires close coordination between Coehlo, who takes the dog home most nights, and Anselmo to make sure all of Hatty’s basic needs are met.
“We work the Hatty stuff out as we go … getting her in a routine of feeding her, getting her out to go potty. That can be crazy sometimes because I’m in court, (Coehlo) is in a meeting with victims,” Anselmo said. “We have to coordinate getting her a bathroom break. When in my history as a state’s attorney have I ever had to contemplate that? I barely can get to the bathroom sometimes.”
Hatty’s charms don’t only work on children. Her handlers say they’ve seen her have the exact same effect on stressed colleagues.
“A lot of partners will come in when they’ve had a hard day and they will sit with her. A lot of people on the staff will come in just to see her and visit her,” Anselmo said.
“We work with this subject matter for so long, you try to stay focused and compartmentalized, and then you sit down and watch her, how she quite literally in front of your eyes can change a kid’s life,” she said. “I really mean that. You can’t buy or manufacture that.”
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