(Hu)man’s Best Friend: How Therapy Dogs Can Help Child Victims Testify in Court

By: Randell Scism

When a child is a victim of a crime, not only must they deal with the emotional consequences of that experience, but they may have to deal with the potentially traumatizing effects of the legal involvement.[1] Child abusers are criminally sanctioned, but that requires the child victim to endure the long and traumatic road through trial.[2] It is not uncommon for children to testify in open court about rapes, beatings, and abductions that they have endured.[3] Not only does the child have to speak about this, but they often must do so in front of the perpetrator.[4] Testifying causes these children to recall the traumatic event, and when a victim recalls a traumatic event, they may experience physical and emotional reactions just as when the event originally occurred, including: fight, flight, freeze reactions as well as anxiety or fear.[5] In children who had to testify multiple times (which is often the case), there are correlations with later sexual problems, defensive avoidance, and internalization problems.[6]

Section 18.2-67.9 of the Code of Virginia allows closed-circuit television (CCTV) in cases involving kidnapping, criminal sexual assault, family offenses, or murder when a victim is 14 years of age or younger at the time of the offense and 16 years or younger at the time of testimony or when a child witness is 14 years or younger at the time of testimony.[7] The court may order that CCTV be used when the child: (1) refuses to testify, (2) cannot communicate about the offense, or (3) the substantial likelihood, based on expert opinion testimony, that the child will suffer severe emotional trauma from testifying.[8] Since the passage of the statute, a Department of Criminal Justice Services assessment noted that while many jurisdictions are aware of the law, CCTV has not been utilized.[9] Between 1994 and 2011, CCTV was used about 396 times despite being requested about 717 times.[10] In 2011, CCTV was used the most in Abuse and Neglect charges (29%) with the next highest being Aggravated Sexual Battery (22%), Sodomy (16%), and Sexual Assault (15%).[11] Although CCTV is a great tool to help diminish the trauma that occurs when children must testify, it is not often used – meaning other remedies must be sought.

Therapy dogs can be used to calm children who are testifying in court.[12] A therapy dog is specially trained to offer comfort, companionship, and affection to those who need it.[13] Therapy dogs have mental health benefits, such as: the release of oxytocin, serotonin, and prolactin, lowers anxiety, provides comfort, reduces loneliness, and increase mental stimulation.[14] Therapy dogs also have physical benefits such as the lowering of blood pressure.[15] In 2018, Virginia passed a new law that allowed a certified facility dog for testimony in a criminal proceeding.[16] The attorney for the Commonwealth or the defendant may apply for an order from the court allowing the dog to be present while the witness is testifying either in-person or with CCTV.[17] Although the practice is new, there are benefits to allowing the child victim have a therapy dog, if that is something that they would like. Child advocates should make sure these children know about this option, and do everything they can to help them through one of the hardest things they may ever have to do.

[1] Leah Nelson, Testifying in Court Can Amplify Trauma for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Ass’n for Psychol. Sci. (Aug. 1, 2006), https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/testifying-in-court-can-amplify-trauma-for-victims-of-childhood-sexual-abuse.

[2] Alexandra Emily Bochte, The Double-Edged Sword of Justice: The Need for Prosecutors to Take Care of Child Victims, 35 Child. Legal Rts. J. 200, 201 (2015).

[3] Alexandra Emily Bochte, The Double-Edged Sword of Justice: The Need for Prosecutors to Take Care of Child Victims, 35 Child. Legal Rts. J. 200 (2015).

[4] Alexandra Emily Bochte, The Double-Edged Sword of Justice: The Need for Prosecutors to Take Care of Child Victims, 35 Child. Legal Rts. J. 200, 201 (2015).

[5] Alexandra Emily Bochte, The Double-Edged Sword of Justice: The Need for Prosecutors to Take Care of Child Victims, 35 Child. Legal Rts. J. 200, 204 (2015).

[6] Leah Nelson, Testifying in Court Can Amplify Trauma for Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Ass’n for Psychol. Sci. (Aug. 1, 2006), https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/testifying-in-court-can-amplify-trauma-for-victims-of-childhood-sexual-abuse.

[7] Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-67.9 (2018).

[8] Va. Code. Ann. § 18.2-67.2 (2018).

[9] Dep’t of Criminal Justice Serv., Virginia’s Use of Closed-Circuit Television with Child Victims and Witnesses: A Look Back 2 (2012), https://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/sites/dcjs.virginia.gov/files/publications/juvenile/virginias-use-closed-circuit-television-child-victims-and-witnesses-look-back.pdf.

[10] Dep’t of Criminal Justice Serv., Virginia’s Use of Closed-Circuit Television with Child Victims and Witnesses: A Look Back 4 (2012), https://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/sites/dcjs.virginia.gov/files/publications/juvenile/virginias-use-closed-circuit-television-child-victims-and-witnesses-look-back.pdf.

[11] Dep’t of Criminal Justice Serv., Virginia’s Use of Closed-Circuit Television with Child Victims and Witnesses: A Look Back 4 (2012), https://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/sites/dcjs.virginia.gov/files/publications/juvenile/virginias-use-closed-circuit-television-child-victims-and-witnesses-look-back.pdf.

[12] Debra S. Hart-Cohen, Canines in the Courtroom, 26 GPSolo 55, 57 (2009).

[13] Debra S. Hart-Cohen, Canines in the Courtroom, 26 GPSolo 55, 57 (2009).

[14] Animal-Assisted Therapy Research Findings, UCLA Health, https://www.uclahealth.org/pac/animal-assisted-therapy. (last visited Feb. 6, 2019).

[15] Animal-Assisted Therapy Research Findings, UCLA Health, https://www.uclahealth.org/pac/animal-assisted-therapy. (last visited Feb. 6, 2019).

[16] Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-67.9:1 (2018).

[17] Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-67.9:1 (2018).

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