PHOENIX – The strategy for dealing with a young crime victim at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is kindness combined with a large dose of Sam.
The latter is a golden retriever/Irish setter specially trained to be a courthouse dog, one of several across the country aimed at making the interview, trial and sentencing process less scary, according to Rhonda Stewart, Sam’s handler and a victim advocate for the county.
“This dog has been so effective in case after case after case in putting people in prison that would be out on the streets,” Stewart said.
That’s because Sam, sprawled on the floor, provides a soothing presence that helps victims feel safe whether they’re describing abuse or sitting near the accused in a courtroom, Stewart said.
Having been on the job for two and a half years, Sam is the most experienced courthouse dog in Arizona.
“The criminal justice system is cold and frustrating, and Sam brings warmth and calmness,” said Susie Lopez, bureau chief of the Victim Services Division at the county attorney’s office. “Sam is an outstanding tool for reaching out to victims.”
Not every dog from service dog school can be a courthouse dog, said Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a longtime prosecuting attorney in Seattle who founded the Courthouse Dogs Foundation after taking her son’s service dog, Jeeter, to juvenile drug court.
“It takes a very special temperament to do do this sort of work. They’ve got to be more laid back and little more loving,” O’Neill-Stephens said.
“I realized that dogs like Jeeter could have a significant impact on the criminal justice system, so I decided to institutionalize the process and tell more people about this.”
When Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall heard about the effectiveness of courthouse dogs, she used seized drug money to bring in Russell, a golden retriever who is new to the job in Tucson, said Kathy Rau, director of the Southern Arizona Children’s Advocacy Center.
“They’re already talking about getting a second dog for downtown,” Rau said. “The way he responds to people in crisis and the way he can identify those people, and just having that big, ol’ head in your lap has made more of a difference than I thought it would.”
Russell works four days a week at the advocacy center and one day a week at the county attorney’s office. He arrived in October and has interacted with about 30 children, Rau said.
Recently, a 4-year-old came to the center, and she had been crying for 15 minutes, Rau said. Investigators were about to give up on an interview when Russell was called.
“Within five minutes she was petting his ears and calming down,” Rau said. “She just jumped up right next to him, and it was a quick interview, but she said what happened and the detective got what was needed for the case.”
Stewart, Sam’s handler, said prosecutors couldn’t get an 8-year-old sex abuse victim to talk, so they asked for Sam. Soon the girl was petting Sam and talking to him.
“After that, she disclosed all of the abuses that had happened to her,” Stewart said. “We eventually took that case to trial with Sam there. She got on the stand, testified and put the guy away for life. And we were this close to dismissing that case.”
Russell and Sam are not the only dogs doing this kind of work in Arizona. Fozzie reports to duty at the Scottsdale Police Department, and Calhoun is assigned to Detective Joy Lucero in the Phoenix Police Department’s Crimes Against Children unit.
“In so many cases, he’s broken the barrier, reduces the trauma and takes their mind off the awful things that they’re talking about and gives them a break,” Lucero said. “Kids just come up and throw their arms around him. He’s a big lovable guy.”
Calhoun has a knack with children who have different forms of autism, Lucero said.
“He can really break down the barriers that humans cannot,” she said.
Stewart said one of the most important roles for courthouse dogs is staying quiet and still in the courtroom.
“That’s essential to the integrity of the program: not upsetting the judges, the courtroom procedure. It’s a serious environment,” she said. “I have judges say, ‘If I had all the people act as well as Sam in the courtroom, there would be no problems here.'”
But once Sam was asked to make a special appearance.
“There was a trial with gang members on both sides. It was so tense in the courtroom that a staff member of the judge called our office,” Stewart said. “All they wanted was for us to walk in the courtroom because it was so thick with tension they thought it might erupt. We brought Sam in, everybody looks and says, ‘Oh, there’s a dog!’ and the whole environment changed.”
Most courthouse dogs are golden retrievers, labs or a mix of the two. Those breeds may have the best traits for comforting those in need.
“I don’t know how he knows it, but he knows it,” Rau said. “He will go to the most distraught child and he seems to know when to be very gentle.”
The woman whose organization trained Russell said Pima County got a great dog.
“He has the opportunity, with 1,100 cases of abuse and domestic violence in Pima County last year, to touch all of those people’s lives in the investigation and prosecution process,” said Jill Felice, founder and program director of Assistance Dogs of the West. “That’s a huge impact on the community.”
Dog handlers said they have noticed that having a furry, four-legged colleague also lifts staff morale.
That is one of many reasons Courthouse Dogs founder Ellen O’Neill-Stephens is working diligently to educate judges, prosecutors and victim advocates about the benefits of using canines.
“Our work is really, really hard. It’s rewarding prosecuting a case, but it hurts your heart after a while and when you have a dog around, it lifts your spirits,” O’Neill-Stephens said. “There is no downside to having a courthouse dog.”