Bill allowing more dogs to provide children support in court clears Michigan Senate ⋆

Legislation aimed at increasing access for children to be assisted by court support dogs during the difficult task of testifying against abusers was unanimously passed Wednesday by the Michigan Senate.

Court is terrifying for children and court support dogs can mean the difference between them getting justice or not, Judge Kathleen Feeney of Michigan’s Third District Court of Appeals told the in May.

As a circuit court judge, Feeney said she witnessed the trauma of victims having to look their abusers in the eye and recount what they did to them to a courtroom of strangers. Having a “fuzzball” to sit at their feet, often gave children the comfort and confidence they needed to testify, Feeney said.

“Before, they used to be sitting in the corner crying and wanting to throw up. … Having the dogs there, petting the dogs, lowers your blood pressure, keeps them out of their amygdala and keeps them in that prefrontal cortex of their brain where they can recall facts more accurately and can testify more accurately,” Feeney said. “That’s what we want, right? Because some people prey on kids and on disabled adults, because that’s what they think. They can’t tell anybody. Nobody’s gonna be able to testify.”

Sen. Dan Lauwers | Senate photo

SB 248, sponsored by Sen. Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway Twp.), expands parameters for dogs to be considered eligible and raises the max age for children to be eligible to have a court support dog to 18, up from 16. Adults with developmental disabilities are also able to access the dogs under current laws.

The bill which will now be considered by the state House.

There should be no age limit for accessing these dogs as a valued resource, Canine Advocates Co-founder Daniel Cojanu said. Canine Advocates is a Michigan-based program that has 32 dogs in various counties that had trained to be seeing eye dogs for the blind, but were repurposed to assist victims in court.

Cojanu said in one of the first cases his canine advocates was assigned to, the dog didn’t even go into the courtroom with the victim, but provided comfort beforehand, allowing a 3-year-old girl to get justice against her abuser.

“Watching these kids, when they know the dog is gonna be there, run through a metal detector just to see the dog. … Who’s excited about coming to court? Who’s excited about going in for a forensic interview at an advocacy clinic. These kids, you give them that,” Cojanu said.

Currently, only service animals or those who have undergone training to be service animals and have since been repurposed to provide emotional support in the legal system are eligible to work with victims in court. The legislation would permit dogs working as therapy animals to be court support dogs.

Feeney said she’d like to see qualified therapy dogs, like those at West Michigan Therapy dogs, be included in Michigan law.

She said therapy dogs, like the ones over in West Michigan are trained to sit calmly at the library while children read to them, be still to offer support to veterans and stay out of the way of staff members as they visit patients at hospitals.

“These dogs have to be able to withstand load crashes, people in wheelchairs, people with gurneys, all the rest of that, and they do it and they do it beautifully,” Feeney said.

But the standards for these dogs to attend court need to be higher in order to protect children, Cojanu said and he hopes that the legislation will be amended to raise those standards. Dogs in his program have a full history of behaviors and abilities from their days in seeing eye dog school, but standards for therapy dogs are less rigorous.

“Some dogs, you don’t know their history and you cannot take that chance. This is for the physical safety of the child and the emotional safety of a child. If something goes wrong, having a child have to come back [again] to testify, we just revictimized that child again,” Cojanu said.

authored by Anna Liz Nichols
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