Paw and Order: Supporting Vulnerable Witnesses

Photo by Maxwell Reide.
Photo by Maxwell Reide.
Photo by Maxwell Reide.

Man’s best friend just became a child’s greatest ally.

On Saturday Feb. 15, the New Paltz community was invited to the Coykendall Science Building auditorium to learn about the use of facility trained dogs in the courtroom, in particular the story of “Rosie,” New York State’s first judicially approved courtroom therapy dog.

Dr. David Crenshaw, clinical director at the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie, a residental shelter that provides therapeutic services to abused, neglected, or at-risk children, moderated the event alongside licensed clinical social worker Lori Stella, also of the Children’s Home, whose work was significantly involved in the case which Rosie premiered.

Stella shared the details of how the case was brought to trial and how through the use of Rosie, the victim, referred to as “Jessica,” was able to testify against her abuser and receive justice.

According to Stella, Jessica was born in Guatemala and at one month old was left by her parents to be raised by her maternal grandparents, along with her older brother. Eleven years later Jessica’s mother returned to Guatemala to illegally immigrate Jessica and her sibling to a home the parents had established in Dutchess County, New York.

During their travel, Jessica’s mother was caught by immigration authority and deported back to Guatemala, leaving Jessica and her brother to complete the trip into the United States with the other illegal immigrants they were traveling with, where Jessica’s father would eventually meet them and take them to New York.

Within one month of her living there, Jessica’s father began molesting her, which soon grew into raping her on a repeated basis, some of which resulted in pregnancies and forced abortions, Stella said. Jessica’s abuse would last four years until the day she resisted her father’s advances and drew an attempt on her life. Jessica was able to evade the attack and run away to Connecticut where she was picked up by Child Protective Services and divulged the abuse she had endured at the hands of her father.

After police recorded a phone call where Jessica tried to have her father admit what he had done, she was placed in group care at the Children’s Home in June 2010, where Stella was assigned as her social worker. Jessica’s father was placed in custody awaiting trial, while Jessica spent nearly a year and a half at the Children’s Home unable to speak of the trauma she suffered to Stella or other counselors.

“A lot of times she would just come to my office and cry, and I could never figure out why,” Stella said. “I didn’t know if she was having flashbacks of her dad, I didn’t know if she was missing her siblings…Jessica was very introverted and couldn’t talk about her feelings.”

In late winter 2010, with the trial of Jessica’s father drawing near, Stella worried Jessica would be unable to testify as the primary witness – acquitting her father of the crime. Dr. Crenshaw approached Stella with an idea he had seen at a recent conference – the use of courthouse therapy dogs. Having worked with Jessica for months with no breakthroughs, Stella decided to give it a try.

In the meantime, Stella took Jessica to her first trial preparation.

“The questions they had to ask this kid, I wanted to crawl under the table,” Stella said. “I just could not imagine being a kid and having to answer these questions that are so uncomfortable. [Jessica] cried so much and we had to keep taking breaks. I couldn’t believe the amount of pain this kid would have to go through time and time again preparing for this.”

In spring of 2011, Rosie, an 11-year-old golden retriever, was brought to the Children’s Home for Jessica’s session. Stella recalled the first time the two encountered one another.

“We went outside for a walk behind the home where there are some picnic tables, which I thought would be nice with the dog,” Stella said. “I sat down at the table and Jessica sat across from me. And Rosie, Rosie just hopped up on the bench and sat next to Jessica. I thought that was such an amazing moment behind dog and human.”

That afternoon also marked the first time Jessica discussed something that was bothering her. Stella said after that she worked with Jessica and Rosie everyday. In the presence of Rosie, Jessica felt comforted enough to discuss her abuse with Stella as well as with attorneys during trial preparations.

“Rosie really allowed Jessica to open up and talk about these traumatic events without taking breaks or sobbing,” Stella said.

Before the trial commenced, the defense argued that the presence of Rosie in the courtroom would sway the jury to sympathy. However, after a brief hearing in which Stella testified to the necessity of Rosie in regards to Jessica’s testimony as well as preventing re-traumatizing her, the dog was allowed to take the stand.

According to Stella, the jury was unable to see Rosie as she lay in the witness box nuzzling Jessica’s foot when necessary. Jessica’s testimony lasted for more than an hour, said Stella, all while her father glared at her from the defendant seat.

In the days following, the jury reached a guilty verdict, what Stella said was an emotional moment for both her and Jessica. The defense has since decided to appeal the case, reasoning again that Rosie’s presence influenced the jury.

The historic case has prompted state legislature known as “Rosie’s Law,” a bill that, if ratified, would permit the use of facility trained therapy dogs in courthouse’s across New York.

Stella has gone on to use blood descendant therapy dogs in her work since Rosie passed in spring 2012.

She said that if a culture finds it necessary to place children in front of court, there should be measures or options in place to remain sensitive to them as victims.

“Nelson Mandela said ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children,’ and I agree with that,” Stella said.