Courthouse dog proposal under discussion

Kirk Boxleitner kboxleitner@ptleader.com
Posted 1/31/17

Jefferson County could get its own courthouse facility dog – some day.

Mary Schoenfelder, crime victim/witness services coordinator for the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, …

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Courthouse dog proposal under discussion

Posted

Jefferson County could get its own courthouse facility dog – some day.

Mary Schoenfelder, crime victim/witness services coordinator for the Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, raised the idea at a Coordinated Community Response (CCR) meeting Jan. 20. She said a facility dog would not be a service animal per se, but it could provide emotional support to children and other victims of violent or otherwise traumatic crimes.

Even if the idea is approved, the process to get a dog in the courthouse would likely take a couple of years to complete, she said.

Schoenfelder noted that Snohomish, Kitsap, King and Thurston counties all have such dogs, as does the Seattle Police Department. She added that she’s received roundly positive feedback regarding the idea.

When Kathleen Kler, chair of the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners, asked about the criteria for such a dog’s handlers, Schoenfelder elaborated that the job descriptions for both the dog and the handler would be up to the county.

“Often, the dog handler works in victim advocacy or law enforcement, because those are related fields,” Schoenfelder said, adding that such dogs have also been used for play therapy and counseling in child advocacy centers. “The dogs are trained to lay still for hours and not be disruptive, so that they can provide comfort to the victim in the courtroom. The bond that dogs form with humans provides them with comfort.”

“We can forget how stressful appearing in court can be, particularly for a child,” said Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Haas, who recalled a recent trial in which one of the two children slated to testify froze on the stand.

Schoenfelder and Chief Deputy Prosecutor Julie St. Marie cited cases from outside the county, in which children told stories to dogs, stories they couldn’t tell to adult human interviewers.

Schoenfelder has found that Labrador and golden retrievers are popular breeds for such a role, and estimated that the cost of acquiring, training and providing continued care for the dog could run between $5,000 and $20,000.

Although the dogs themselves can be available for next to nothing, the handlers would have to pay to travel to the service agencies’ locations and train with the dogs on site.

The exact cost, and how many handlers the dog would need or would be allowed, would depend on which service agency grants approval. Schoenfelder was advised to apply to multiple agencies.

“It could take a couple of months to draw up application letters,” Schoenfelder said. “Even if you’re accepted, you’ll go on a wait list and have to go through site visits and in-person interviews, before the two weeks of training. All told, the process could take 18 months to two years.”

When asked where county court judges stand on the idea of a courthouse dog, Schoenfelder promised to contact them, as well as a number of other stakeholders, and hoped to offer at least some of their answers by the next CCR meeting in April.

Schoenfelder said she got the idea for a facility dog when visiting the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office, where she learned about its courthouse facility dog, Kerris.

“I got a few minutes to talk with her handler and hear about his experience,” Schoenfelder said. “Then I started thinking about how we could make this happen in Jefferson County.”

Schoenfelder met with representatives from assistance dog organizations at the International Courthouse Dogs Conference in Bellevue last September, which further broadened her scope of knowledge. When asked about the possible problem of pet allergies, Schoenfelder noted that meeting the dog and having the animal present “is always voluntary, and only done with the victim’s consent.”

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