Dogs ready to help scared victims in court

Illinois could be one of a few states allowing comfort dogs to help during testimony in sex cases

  • Mitchell, a yellow Labrador retriever, with Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim. Mitchell is believed to be the first facility dog owned by an Illinois state's attorney's office and he may expand into courtroom work if Gov. Bruce Rauner signs a measure into law.

      Mitchell, a yellow Labrador retriever, with Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim. Mitchell is believed to be the first facility dog owned by an Illinois state's attorney's office and he may expand into courtroom work if Gov. Bruce Rauner signs a measure into law. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim bonds with Mitchell, a yellow Labrador retriever. Mitchell is believed to be the first facility dog owned by an Illinois state's attorney's office.

      Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim bonds with Mitchell, a yellow Labrador retriever. Mitchell is believed to be the first facility dog owned by an Illinois state's attorney's office. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Mitchell, a yellow Labrador retriever, is assigned to the Lake County Children's Advocacy Center in Gurnee. He works full time for the Lake County state's attorney's office.

      Mitchell, a yellow Labrador retriever, is assigned to the Lake County Children's Advocacy Center in Gurnee. He works full time for the Lake County state's attorney's office. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 6/28/2015 1:58 PM

A four-legged Lake County state's attorney's office employee is ready to assume an expanded role that would bring him into criminal courtrooms, provided Gov. Bruce Rauner signs a measure into law.

State's Attorney Michael Nerheim found his new full-time worker, a nearly 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever named Mitchell, while both were before a state Senate committee last spring.

 

They were supporting a proposal that would allow facility dogs to accompany those 18 or younger, or developmentally disabled adults, to the witness stand in certain instances for cases involving sexual abuse or exploitation. Mitchell was brought to the hearing by St. Louis-based Support Dogs Inc. representatives.

"Mitch and I testified at the same time," Nerheim said with a laugh. "So, I sat in the chair and testified, and Mitch laid in front of the table and impressed the senators."

Animals have been used periodically on a contract basis by prosecutors to comfort young crime victims during interviews, but it's believed the Lake County state's attorney's office is the only one in Illinois to own a full-time facility dog, Nerheim said.

As Mitchell awaits a decision on his new courtroom duty, he's been busy greeting children and staying with them during interviews with prosecutors.

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Illinois would be the third state to have a law specifically addressing courtroom dog use, according to an industry expert credited with launching the program in the Seattle area. The state would require the use of a facility dog -- not a service or therapy canine as originally proposed -- with proper credentials such as Mitchell.

Unlike a service or therapy animal, a facility dog must meet national standards and come from an organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International. Support Dogs sent Mitchell for basic schooling at the Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center, then he completed more work to become a professionally certified and trained assistance canine.

Paperwork for Rauner to sign the bill into law went to the governor's office June 19, about four weeks after gaining Senate and House approval. When or if he'll sign the proposal into law is not yet known.

"The governor will carefully consider any legislation that crosses his desk," Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said.

Republican State Rep. Barbara Wheeler of Crystal Lake, whose district covers parts of McHenry and Lake counties, co-sponsored the courthouse dog legislation in the House after it was initiated by Democratic state Sen. Scott Bennett of Springfield. She said a dog can comfort a child or developmentally disabled adult who suffers a traumatic experience.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's a good bill," Wheeler said. "I'm so excited."

Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, a former King County prosecutor in the Seattle area, spurred creation of the country's first courtroom dog program in 2004. Now heading the nonprofit Courthouse Dogs Foundation, she met Nerheim at a conference her organization hosted in October 2014.

O'Neill-Stephens praised Illinois legislators for including the provision requiring facility dogs that meet national standards to be used for courtroom duty. She said many other states have courthouse dogs, but without laws that provide specific guidance to judges so they are clear about a canine's duties.

She said Nerheim has the right idea by having a facility dog as part of the state's attorney's office.

"I think they're of the most benefit if they belong to the office and go to work every day," O'Neill-Stephens said.

Nerheim wound up with Mitchell by chance after both appeared before the Senate committee in Springfield and he talked to Support Dogs officials. He said the nonprofit group vetted his office and agreed to donate Mitchell and pay for his extensive training.

Mitchell, whose living expenses are covered through private donations, was officially assigned to the Lake County Children's Advocacy Center in Gurnee on April 27. The center is a division of the state's attorney's office that assists in the investigation and prosecution of crimes involving sexual and physical abuse of children.

Assistant State's Attorney Jason Grindel and investigator James Magna were trained on how to appropriately guide and handle Mitchell. While Mitchell lives with Grindel, the situation differs from a police dog-handler relationship because he's able to work with anyone.

Visitors are made aware of Mitchell's presence by a sign at the center's entrance. Nerheim said no one is forced to be with Mitchell, who regularly greets the kids and plays with them.

Magna said Mitchell has been "an amazing ice breaker" for children who suddenly meet strangers in the prosecutor's office and must discuss trauma they've endured. After an interview, one girl drew a picture of herself with the dog and wrote "I Love Mitch."

"He literally just lays there during the interview," Magna said. "He'll kind of lay on their toes most of the time and they (children) love to be able to reach down and pet him and know that he's there during an interview. As soon as we get in an interview room, I hand over the leash to a child. It's kind of symbolic, a way to let the child know they're in control, when there's many instances where they haven't been, that bring them here to this building."

Nerheim said he expects Mitchell to work mostly at the Children's Advocacy Center, which handled 681 new cases in 2014. He said the dog can be used in any division and visits the main Waukegan courthouse.

In the courtroom, a judge would decide if a facility dog's use is warranted. O'Neill-Stephens said she recommends prosecutors offer the dog for use by a defense witness, if requested.

Nerheim said the dog would be expected to be quiet and remain out of the jury's sight at a witness' feet. He said a judge would know to disregard the dog's presence in a bench trial.

O'Neill said not everything has been perfect with the dogs in Washington. For example, she said, the canines have fallen asleep and snored at trials, but problems were averted by judges alerting jurors to the animals in advance and telling them to not consider them in deliberations.

Mitchell passed an early courtroom test in May. Nerheim's son played the role of a victim with Mitchell below him in a mock trial.

"Packed courtroom, full of people, and he just laid there and didn't move the whole time," Nerheim said.

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