DETROIT — Izzy stood on a light blue mat, as 16-year-old Marley placed her left hand on the top of the Goldendoodle’s head and turned to face the juvenile court referee.
The teen listened as a probation officer spoke to the Macomb County Juvenile Court referee. She occasionally petted Izzy or glanced at her, and sat calmly, as the pooch silently laid on her mat beside the teen’s seat at a table.
Izzy was present when Marley learned the referee was going to release her from the county’s juvenile justice center and place her on intensive probation.
Though the teen’s mom was sitting on the other side of her, Marley said Izzy “was more comfort there. I didn’t feel so alone.”
That’s one of the goals of the juvenile court’s new therapy dog program, which started in October. Izzy provides comfort and stress relief to youths and their families who are receiving services, particularly those who are vulnerable, fragile or anxious victims or litigants.
“We deal with a lot of kids with mental health problems. Court itself is kinda scary for those kids. She can be in on the office visit or a calming influence in the courtroom,” said Nicole Faulds, juvenile division administrator.
She said Izzy — who was rescued from a hoarding situation and was recommended by the county’s chief animal control officer because of her temperament — has reduced stress for some children and built rapport with others, particularly those who have experienced trauma in their lives. Izzy is handled by Amy Mitchell, a case work supervisor for the court, and comes to work daily with her since she finished training.
The use of trained dogs and handlers in criminal justice settings — including courthouses, prosecuting attorneys’ offices, child advocacy centers and domestic violence programs — is a growing trend.
As of December, there were 234 accredited facility dogs working in legal agencies in 40 states, as well as in Canada, Australia, Chile and Europe, according to Courthouse Dogs Foundation.
Two are accredited through the group in Michigan: the Leelanau County Prosecutor’s Office in Suttons Bay and the Sexual Assault Services of Calhoun County in Battle Creek.
There also are an untold number of other dogs providing support in these types of settings, including dozens in Michigan.
Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a retired deputy prosecuting attorney in Seattle and founder of Courthouse Dogs Foundation, said she saw a lot of emotional trauma that people suffered with while involved in an investigation and testifying in court.
“This is one way to mitigate that trauma,” she said. “Especially for children, it’s very important they go through this without causing additional lifelong trauma.”
The growth of dogs in legal areas is happening despite reports that some judges and defense attorneys have raised concerns about dogs in courtrooms, potentially bringing bias against the defendant or prejudicing juries.
In a 2018 article in the Chicago Tribune, a Denver defense lawyer said he has unsuccessfully fought the use of dogs in criminal trials several times. The lawyer, Christopher Decker, told the newspaper that he believes it distracts jurors from determining the truthfulness of the testimony, “tends to engender sympathy” and is “highly prejudicial.”
O’Neill-Stephens said she is trying to use her group’s model to set the standard in this area so “the presence of the handler nor the dog should create a problem on appeal … or be unfair to the defendant.”
“Personally, I’ve had defense attorneys say it’s not fair to their client,” said Dan Cojanu, program director and founder of Canine Advocacy Program in West Bloomfield, which has 29 dogs working in courts in Oakland County and throughout Michigan.
“If you look at the flip side, if you prepare a child properly to testify, they’ll get the opportunity to cross-examine this child. If the child is upset, rolls into a ball and is crying, it’s not good for their client, either. We’re offering a service for everyone,” said Cojanu, a retired victim advocate supervisor with the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office. “When a child is up there and they’re not as anxious as they were coming in, they’re going to be able to give the information and answer the questions everybody wants.”
The Lake County Public Defender’s Office in Illinois was the first — and may still be the only — public defender’s office in the country to have a dog, starting in 2018, said Keith Grant, chief of the office’s Guardian ad Litem Division. He said the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office also has two dogs.
When Grant’s office has clients in need, especially delinquents and those in abuse and neglect cases in non-trial settings, the certified facility dog, Simba, helps calm them.
He said Simba has been in interviews and courtroom settings, but not trials. Juveniles waiting for a case to be called have petted Simba; and in one surprising instance, a very agitated juvenile smiled and petted the dog during his entire proceeding.
“Everybody in the room was like something had just exploded,” Grant recalled. “He was gonna blow up the court, yell and scream, and tell the judge his mind before Simba came in and changed the entire thing.”
Since then, the juvenile has worked more with the office and is formulating plans for his future, Grant said. The Labrador retriever gives the youth a reason to come in.
“That’s the kind of thing he can do,” Grant said of Simba.
Amber Depuydt-Goodlock, supervisor of the Child Advocacy Center Program at Sexual Assault Services/Bronson Battle Creek, said the dog she handles — Matty — has helped ease many kids through the legal system over the years.
Matty, a cross between a golden retriever and a Labrador, has been in counseling settings and at courts, waiting with victims before they testify. He now primarily works in the Child Advocacy Center, greeting children when they arrive and spending time with them before they leave.
“When they leave, the last memory of the case is not things that happened with them, Depuydt-Goodlock said, “but time they spent with Matty.”
Michigan statute allows for a courtroom support dog, meaning “a dog that has been trained and evaluated as a support dog pursuant to the Assistance Dogs International Standards for guide or service work and that is repurposed and appropriate for providing emotional support to children and adults within the court or legal system or that has performed the duties of a courtroom support dog prior to Sept. 27, 2018.”
It allows a courtroom support dog and its handler to be with, or in close proximity to, children and vulnerable adults during testimony.
A notice of intent to use a courtroom support dog is required if the dog is to be used during trial, but not during other courtroom proceedings. A court must rule on a motion objecting to the use of a courtroom support dog before the date when the witness needs to use the dog, according to the statute.
In 2018, the Michigan Court of Appeals in a 2-1 ruling overturned a sexual assault conviction because an adult complainant was allowed to testify with a support dog and its handler. It stated there was legal precedent to allow children and developmentally disabled adults to testify with a support dog, but not “a fully abled adult.”
O’Neill-Stephens, with Courthouse Dogs Foundation, said the ruling was “complete nonsense.”
While state laws may vary on the use of dogs in court, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas announced on his website that the Senate passed his Courthouse Dogs Act, which could clarify federal judges’ authority to allow certified facility dogs in courtrooms during legal proceedings.
The act allows for any party in a federal criminal proceeding to request an order authorizing an available certified courthouse dog to accompany a witness while testifying in federal court, according to Cornyn’s website.
It states that in order to be certified facility dogs, they must have graduated from an assistance dog organization that is a member of an internationally recognized assistance dog association whose primary purpose is based on excellence in the areas of dog acquisition, training and placement.
The dog also must be accompanied by a trainer who is trained to manage the dog and has knowledge about the legal and criminal justice processes. The act was supported by Courthouse Dogs Foundation among others.
Twenty-four dogs are registered as courthouse therapy dogs in courts throughout western Michigan, with four more in training through West Michigan Therapy Dogs, Kent County Circuit Court Chief Judge Pro Tem Kathleen Feeney said.
She said the dogs help ease children’s fears, allowing them to “stand up and tell their story … things you and I don’t want to tell as adults.”