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‘Courthouse dog’ to help ease victims

    Maureen Maurer, founder of Hawaii Canines for Independence, sat with Pono, a courthouse dog, yesterday in the Honolulu prosecutor's office. City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, standing in background, introduced the program to have specially trained dogs in court to ease victims and witnesses yesterday.
    Courthouse dogs keep child victims company and put them at ease as they testify and give depositions in abuse and other traumatic cases.

The Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office will begin using a specially trained "courthouse dog" in the next several months to help victims and witnesses — especially traumatized children — navigate their way through the criminal justice system, newly elected city Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro said yesterday.

About two dozen deputy prosecutors watched a video yesterday of a young mainland girl who refused to tell a forensic investigator about the abuse she suffered but offered graphic details to a courthouse dog who was in the interview room.

In another video a mother of child sex abuse victims in Washington said the first "courthouse dog" — a yellow Labrador named Jeeter — helped her daughters "find their words when no one else could."

As the mother cried, Jeeter walked over to give her comfort.

"I wouldn’t do it any other way if I had a choice," the mother said through tears after petting Jeeter.

Dogs are used in nine or 10 other jurisdictions from Washington to Florida, and Kaneshiro heard about Seattle-based Courthouse Dogs LLC from a deputy prosecutor in Arizona.

"We want to do anything that helps victims, especially children," Kaneshiro said following yesterday’s presentation by Courthouse Dogs. "We’ve looked at this, and I don’t foresee any legal problems."

Eventually, the program might expand with additional dogs that could appear in Honolulu courtrooms to put children and senior citizens at ease on the witness stand when describing their horrors to jurors and judges.

On the mainland, courtroom dogs also help teenage drug court participants; calm tensions in adversarial plea bargaining sessions; and greet jurors, victims and their parents arriving for traumatic court proceedings, said Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, who founded Courthouse Dogs in 2003.

As courthouse dogs sit in the witness box next to young and elderly victims and witnesses, mainland prosecutors and defense attorneys have found themselves petting and stroking the dogs to calm their nerves, O’Neill-Stephens said.

Courthouse dogs are specially trained and handled only by deputy prosecutors, detectives or forensic investigators to avoid legal problems dealing with witnesses, victims or court proceedings, said O’Neill-Stephens, a deputy prosecutor in Seattle for 25 years.

"We know the ropes, we know the confidentiality issues," she told the deputy Honolulu prosecutors yesterday as they nodded in agreement.

Honolulu’s first courthouse dog will be Pono, a 3-year-old black Labrador female provided through a donation by the nonprofit group Hawaii Canines for Independence, which is training Pono and will provide liability insurance and pay for any extraordinary medical costs, said Maureen Maurer, the group’s executive director.

After work, Pono will go home with her handler every night.

Deputy prosecutor Scott Spallina has his own dog, Buddy — an 11-year-old poi he got from the Hawaiian Humane Society and sometimes brings to work — and was one of the first to pet Pono after the presentation.

In the Prosecutor’s Office, Spallina is in charge of elder-abuse prosecutions and has handled his share of child sex abuse cases. He welcomes any tool that can ease the process for victims and help them testify against their assailants.

"A dog can make a particularly stressful situation less so," Spallina said. "Anything that anybody can do — whether it’s prosecutors or defense attorneys — to make court less stressful, especially for special victims, we’re all in favor of that."


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