Courtroom Canines Are Leading Courtroom Accommodations for Children.

AuthorEnglund, Ashley Joan

The morning of the trial was excruciating for Anna, as it is for every child victim or witness who has to testify. A couple of mini-meltdowns to start the day did not help nor make me optimistic. Anna's mom testified first. As she came out of the courtroom, she and her daughter began weeping in each other's arms as soon as they saw each other. Sharon [the therapy dog] wedged herself between them, trying to comfort someone, somehow." (1)

Courtroom canines are an emerging accommodation to assist children testifying at trial. The dogs are specifically trained to reduce a child's stress levels, enabling more accurate and clear testimony. The use of canines in the courtroom is a cause for concern for defendants and judges. Defendants assert that the use of a courtroom canine will inject sympathy into the jury box, enhance the credibility of the witness who is accompanied by a canine, and in turn prejudice the defendant. These fears, however, are unsubstantiated, as recent empirical evidence reveals that the use of a courtroom canine has no prejudicial effect on either the defendant or the child witness. When compared to other courtroom accommodations, such as CCTV, comfort objects, and support persons, courtroom canines are the best accommodation available for child witnesses.

Trauma of Testifying

The assumption underlying the adversarial judicial system is that an aggressive cross-examination is fundamental to discovering the truth. (2) There is evidence, however, that this does the exact opposite to children. An aggressive line of questioning can cause a child witness great distress. (3) When a child is asked to recount a traumatic event, the emergency response centers activate, immobilizing the child. The emergency response shuts off a child's cognitive abilities, leaving a child frozen in fear, unable to comprehend questions, reason, or accurately remember. (4) Bessel Van Der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, discovered that when people revisit a traumatic event, the speech centers of the brain shut off, resulting in the inability to translate thoughts and feelings into words. (5) His research revealed how the effects of trauma can leave physical lesions like a stroke. (6)

Children's experiences with the judicial system are confirmed to have prolonged negative effects on a child's education, mental health, and beliefs about re-engaging with the legal process. (7) Many child sexual assault victims had such a negative experience with the court system that they would not report the crime in the future. (8)Even legal professionals do not want their own children to participate in the legal process. (9)

Traditional Courtroom Accommodations for Children

The courtroom has several methods to help ease the burden of testimony among children. One method is by a two-way closed circuit television (CCTV), where the child's testimony is transmitted for the courts to view. (10) This two-way system protects the defendant's constitutional right to confront their accuser, while the traumatic effects of the courtroom are minimized for the child.(11) Though CCTV testimony is common, research has shown that jurors perceived children who use this method instead of doing so in person are "less intelligent, more likely to be making up a story, and less likely to be basing their testimony on fact versus fantasy." (12) The juror's negative biases of CCTV led to fewer guilty verdicts when measured against pre-deliberation. (13)

There are also in-person accommodations, such as support persons and comfort objects. Support persons, also known as adult attendants, can accompany the testifying child to a judicial proceeding. (14) The courts allow the support person to be within close proximity to the child while the child testifies. This includes the ability for the child to sit on the lap of the adult during the entire proceeding. (15) There is no evidence that confirms the presence of a support person increases prejudice toward the defendant. (16) However, studies show that mock jurors find children that use a support person as less credible and trustworthy. (17) Mock jurors are more likely to assume that the child was "coached" by the support person. (18) In turn, the credibility of the child's testimony is lessened. (19)

Most courts also allow comfort objects to be brought onto the stand by a child. (20) Comfort objects may include the child's favorite toys, stuffed animal, or blanket. (21) Comfort objects allow the child a sense of calm while testifying. (22) However, comfort objects may make the victim appear more vulnerable and appealing. Thus, the presence of a comfort object could prejudice the defendant. (23)

Courtroom Canines: A Nonprejudicial Courtroom Accommodation

The use of courtroom canines is emerging throughout the United States as an effective means to comfort children during the judicial process. (24 What elevates courtroom canines above other accommodation methods is that their use does not prejudice the victim or the defendant and does not influence the jury's decision-making process. (25) Numerous studies conclude a courtroom canine is an invaluable tool that reduces stress and, in turn, facilitates clear and reliable testimony.

Because of these benefits, some state courts interpret victim rights statutes to encompass the use of a canine during trial. Other states have codified the use of courtroom canines as an accommodation. As of March 12, 2020, courts have established courthouse facility dog programs, which include over 238 facility dogs working in 40 states. (26) This does not include many states that use therapy dogs in the court-room. (27)

The records of Florida's Second Judicial Circuit partnered with Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy program indicate that since 2007, the program has worked 155 criminal cases and 325 visits, including depositions, pretrial meetings, and other meetings. (28) There are currently 32 specially trained teams of dogs and handlers working throughout the circuit. (29)

A Golden Retriever Ignites a Lawsuit

A golden retriever named Rose sparked controversy when she accompanied a child rape victim to trial. An 11-year-old girl was sexually assaulted multiple times by her father over the course of four years, twice impregnated by her father and both times forced to undergo an abortion. (30) The child was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was unable to communicate with professionals...

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