Lending a helping paw to the legal community

By Legalman 1st Class Daniel A. Vasquez, Region Legal Service Office Northwest The Region Legal Service Office Northwest (RLSO NW), located in Bremerton, Wash., has pioneered a program within the Navy’s […]

By Legalman 1st Class Daniel A. Vasquez, Region Legal Service Office Northwest

The Region Legal Service Office Northwest (RLSO NW), located in Bremerton, Wash., has pioneered a program within the Navy’s legal community. Recently, the military justice department at RLSO Northwest began using canines to comfort victims and witnesses through the criminal trial process.  Research shows that visits from trained canines can significantly decrease pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue in individuals experiencing difficult circumstances, and the use of dogs to comfort people during natural disaster response is increasing.  RLSO NW additionally believes dogs can ease the pain of those who have fallen victim to crimes.

RLSO NW contacted two local organizations providing comfort and therapy dog services to learn how best to incorporate dogs into the military justice process.  Various nonprofit organizations that train dogs for these purposes have developed across the country. Some of these organizations use therapy animals to assist humans with communication, while others offer psychological first aid following traumatic events.  Therapy canines have been used in hospitals, schools, counseling, residential treatment facilities, assisted living facilities, libraries, and detention facilities. Dog-handler teams typically focus on treatment of individuals immersed in crisis environments and people experiencing intense emotions in the aftermath of a traumatic incident.  These organizations believe that when someone is hurting, crisis response canine teams can replace the feelings of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness with feelings of safety, comfort, and confidence.

So, where do canines and the Navy’s military justice program at RLSO NW intersect? RLSO NW conducts and prosecutes courts-martial for military commands in eleven states in the northwestern section of the United States.  The effective prosecution of crimes depends on the involvement and testimony of victims and witnesses.  However, testifying in court can be an unpleasant experience.  In particular, testifying in cases involving sexual assault or child abuse can be especially traumatic.  When asking victims or witnesses to testify in court, significant effort is made to reduce the side effects, or secondary traumas, related to recounting the original traumatic experience.  Comfort dogs are one way to help.  Under the direction of its Commanding Officer Capt. Caren McCurdy, RLSO NW initiated a pilot program called the Courthouse Canine Program.  The first dog to join the program is Levi, along with his handler, volunteer Pam Selz.

Selz, a former investigator for the King County medical examiner, has been a certified therapy dog handler since August 2007. She has volunteered for National Crisis Response Canines since 2008 and for Project Canine since 2010.  Selz’ current co-worker has four paws; locally famous and beloved, Levi is a 165-pound brindled Great Dane.  Levi has trained to serve as a comfort and therapy dog since he was six-months old.  Selz affectionately refers to herself as Levi’s “mom,” and knows him as well as you would expect any mother to know her child.  She lists Levi’s “likes” as toys, toilet paper rolls, and mealtimes.  His favorite treats are almost every dog treat offered to him.  Levi’s specialty is providing a calming lovable distraction to the individuals he visits.  By helping people feel comfortable and relaxed, Levi enables them to cope with the stresses they are confronting.  Unlike a human victim advocate in criminal justice cases, Levi is truly a neutral being; he cannot influence the testimony of witnesses or victims in any way.  Levi’s neutrality is just one of the reasons dogs provide a unique and valuable service during criminal trials.

RLSO NWs Courthouse Canine Program recognizes the benefits of the comforting services provided by dog companionship. The calming assistance a dog provides to the military justice mission greatly assists in providing emotional support to all participants in the justice system.  To implement the Courthouse Canine Program, RLSO NW first needed to identify a suitable court-martial proceeding for which a therapy dog could be used.  The command sought to have Levi sit with a victim during victim testimony at a sentencing hearing.  This particular part of a court-martial was most ideal for introducing the program because, by the time sentencing occurs, a military judge already has found the accused guilty of a crime; if Levi’s presence had caused any disruption or had any perceived negative effects on the sentencing hearing, it could not jeopardize the previously-determined finding of guilt.

In selecting the court-martial in which to implement the program, RLSO NW considered four questions:

  • Would the victim testify?
  • Was the individual susceptible to anxiety either during the court-martial process or during the trial itself?
  • Would the victim be testifying against an individual who would induce anxiety in the victim?
  •  Would the use of a comfort dog ultimately be beneficial?

After reviewing several court-martial case files, RLSO NW selected a case involving a fourteen-year-old victim who would testify against her step-parent at the sentencing hearing.  The victim was contacted and asked about her interest in having a comfort dog present during preparations for trial, as well as during testimony.  The victim agreed and the prosecutor arranged a pre-trial meeting between the victim and Levi.  The connection between the two was immediate, and the victim subsequently requested to have Levi available to her during the trial.  Consequently, the prosecuting trial team filed a motion asking the military judge to allow Selz and Levi to accompany the victim during the court-martial process.  The military judge granted the motion making Selz and Levi the first handler-and-dog team successfully used during a RLSO NW court-martial.

On the day of the sentencing hearing, Selz and Levi waited with the victim. In the courtroom, Levi sat beside the victim as she testified on the witness stand, and, as liability insurance protocols require for handlers, Selz remained at the end of Levi’s six-foot leash.  During her testimony, the victim continuously petted Levi and reached for him whenever he moved slightly away from her or shifted position; it was clear that Levi’s presence provided the victim comfort.  Levi was docile and well-behaved and the presence of Selz and Levi did not disrupt the proceedings.  After the hearing, the victim shared her appreciation for having Levi with her on the witness stand during her testimony, and she requested to take a picture with Levi as a keepsake.  Despite testifying to a traumatic experience, the victim was so comforted by Levi’s presence that she wanted a memento of Levi to have as a pleasant memory salvaged from a difficult time.

Advanced planning and careful preparation gave RLSO NW the ability to successfully utilize Levi’s services. In turn, Levi provided comfort and alleviated anxiety for a victim who bravely participated in a federal court proceeding and testified against an intimate family member.  The Navy strives to provide caring and protective environments to those who participate in the Military Justice process; RLSO NW has sought to achieve that goal through the Courthouse Canine Program and intends to utilize the program in the appropriate circumstances.

Reference to any particular nonprofit organization in this article should not be interpreted as an endorsement of that organization or any other by the DoD, DON, JAGC, or RLSO Northwest.

 

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