Courtroom dogs now the law in Illinois

 
 
Updated 7/21/2015 5:30 PM
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  • Mitchell, a 2-year-old a yellow Labrador retriever, is petted by Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim. Mitchell is a trained facility dog and, starting Jan. 1, 2016, will be allowed to accompany children or developmentally disabled adults to the witness stand in court in certain circumstances under a law signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner. Mitchell is owned by the state's attorney's office.

      Mitchell, a 2-year-old a yellow Labrador retriever, is petted by Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim. Mitchell is a trained facility dog and, starting Jan. 1, 2016, will be allowed to accompany children or developmentally disabled adults to the witness stand in court in certain circumstances under a law signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner. Mitchell is owned by the state's attorney's office. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Dogs will be allowed to accompany children or developmentally disabled adults to the courtroom witness stand in certain circumstances under a law signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Rauner's office announced he signed the measure Tuesday, and the law becomes effective Jan. 1, 2016. The bill passed the House 117-0 and the Senate 58-0.

Under the law, specially trained facility dogs will be allowed to accompany those 18 or younger, or developmentally disabled adults, to the witness stand in certain instances for cases involving sexual abuse or exploitation.

Illinois is in line to become 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 will require the use of a facility dog -- not a service or therapy canine as originally proposed -- with proper credentials.

Unlike a service or therapy animal, a facility dog must meet national standards and come from an organization accredited by Assistance Dogs International.

Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim's office already has a facility dog qualified for courtroom duty, a 2-year-old yellow Labrador retriever named Mitchell. It's believed the office is the only one in Illinois to own a full-time facility dog, Nerheim said.

In the courtroom, a judge will decide if a facility dog's use is warranted. Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, a former King County prosecutor in the Seattle area who spurred creation of the country's first courtroom dog program in 2004, said the animals should be made available to defense attorneys, if requested.

Mitchell already has been greeting children and staying with them during interviews with Lake County prosecutors.

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