Abused kids speak freely around dogs
When Judge Larry Steele learned last fall that he was going to meet a new therapy dog named Wink, he expected someone to go outside and fetch her. The meeting had been going for 45 minutes, Steele said, and he assumed the dog was simply waiting outside in the hall.
Instead, Tonya Murray, director of the Uintah and Daggett County Children's Justice Center, slid her chair back from the table and tugged on what appeared to be a large black lab. The dog had been there all along, but Steele hadn't noticed her.
"That dog did not make a sound," said Steele, presiding judge of Utah's 8th District Juvenile Court. "She did not move for the whole meeting."
Steele was so impressed that he offered to allow Wink in his courtroom, which so far has happened at least once.
Wink isn't just a quiet dog who knows how to behave. The 2-year-old black lab and golden retriever mix is a service animal with extensive training to help her in criminal investigations involving children.
As do all 20 Children's Justice Center (CJC) locations in Utah, the Uintah and Daggett County facility provides a safe space for children who are victims of crimes. The building has kid-oriented rooms, toys and an environment to help children feel comfortable. The idea is to make the kids feel as safe as possible as they talk about difficult topics like physical or sexual abuse. The interviews may be videotaped to spare children the difficulty of discussing traumatic or embarrassing events over and over.
The Uintah and Daggett County CJC is one of just two facilities that use a dog, which Murray said is a formidable tool. When kids come to the center, Murray explained, they can choose to bring Wink with them into the interview room. Sometimes they spend the interviews petting Wink. Other times, the dog lies quietly at the kids' feet. She doesn't whimper or whine, Murray said, and having a nonjudgmental presence in the room can make it significantly easier to broach difficult topics.
"Some of the anxiety just kind of seems to melt away," Murray added.
The Tooele County CJC is the only other facility with a dog. Executive director Carolyn Jensen said that four years ago her center became the first of its kind in the nation to use service dogs to help children. The program began with two retired search and rescue dogs, though today only one, Bruno, remains.
Much like Wink, Bruno has a major impact on kids. Jensen said her facility interviews youngsters of all ages and when the questions start to probe more deeply, a dog offers someone else to talk to besides the investigator.
"When the children try to answer these hard questions, they start talking to the dogs," Jensen said.
Murray said service dogs like Wink and Bruno empower children in interviews. The kids get to hold the leash, for example, which Murray believes gives them a sense of control. And when they leave the CJC, they tend to remember Wink and Bruno rather than topics they discussed with investigators.
"They don't associate this place with this experience they had to go through," she said.
Murray said she couldn't discuss specific cases, but she did recall one young girl with whom investigators recently needed to discuss "some pretty tough stuff." As the conversation became more intense, the girl began to emotionally withdraw, curling into a fetal position. But Wink was in the room, Murray said, and somehow that helped.
"She'd sit in that position for just a second before she would remember that the dog was at her feet," Murray explained. "Then she would open back up. To me that was huge."
Jensen recalled a similar event with Bruno. She said that on one particularly busy day, Bruno walked out of an interview room into an area filled with children. He scanned the crowd, Jensen said, then approached a small child crying silently by himself.
"He walked over and put his head on the child's shoulder," Jensen said. "The child looked around. Bruno had been trained not to lick people but he just very gently licked the cheek of the child and cried with the child."
The concept of canines at CJC facilities came up years ago after Jensen attended a training event in Washington, D.C., where she saw a presentation on service dogs and loved the idea. Eventually she enlisted her pair of retired dogs and then "took the show on the road" to other CJC facilities around the state.
Murray was among the CJC staffers who saw that "show" and liked it. Eventually, she applied to the California-based Canine Companions for Independence program in 2011. The nonprofit program trains service dogs for a variety of tasks, and earlier this year approved the Uintah and Daggett County CJC for Wink. Murray then attended a two-week handler training program before bringing Wink back to Utah.
Murray said donated money paid for the process. Ongoing training will help Wink stay sharp.
While the initial goal was to help kids in interviews, the program has grown to include dogs in courtrooms like Steele's. Wink is the first dog to appear before the judge, and Steele said it went very smoothly. Wink was well-behaved and helped a child deal with what was likely an intimidating situation.
Wink was so effective, in fact, that Steele said he would gladly welcome her back.
"The dog has met all of my expectations," he said. "I expected the dog to have a calming effect. And I think I'll see Wink often."
Wink is the latest addition to Utah's small group of Children's Justice Center service dogs.