A frightened little girl who had been sexually abused was brought to a child advocacy center in Texas to tell a stranger what had happened to her. When the forensic interviewer left the room for a moment to speak with detectives, the child hugged a dog named Petra.
“I love you, Petra,” the child told the dog. “You really are a good dog. I’ve told you more than I’ve ever told anybody. I hope when you die, you go to heaven.”
Petra, a golden retriever and Lab mix, is a courthouse facility dog. These dogs are professionally trained assistance dogs suitable for providing quiet companionship to vulnerable individuals in legal settings without causing any disruption of the proceedings.
As of Aug. 12, there were 178 such dogs in 38 states, including Wisconsin, according to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, which is based in Bellevue, Wash.
A group of people are hoping to one day bring such a dog to Eau Claire. The animal’s primary mission would be to support children who are being interviewed at the Chippewa Valley Child Advocacy Center — which brings together a specially trained team of professionals to investigate cases of child maltreatment — or Eau Claire County Human Services Department.
The dog also could be used at the Eau Claire County Courthouse to support children during interviews, meetings or testimony.
“Our dog (would be) available for any child who is suffering emotional distress during legal proceedings,” the local facility’s dog proposal states.
“Courthouse facility dogs provide a compassionate way to help traumatized victims tell their stories,” according to the Courthouse Dogs Foundation. “Because of the success of this program, more participants in law enforcement and the judicial system are realizing its value and seeking information about how to get started.”
Loralee Clark, an Eau Claire County assistant district attorney, is part of the effort.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” said Clark, who started in La Crosse County in 1987 and came to Eau Claire in 2009. “I started asking questions, and other people were interested, and we formed a group — CATCH, (or Canine at the Courthouse).”
“Kids who are victims of child abuse or sexual abuse need all the help they can get,” said Clark, a longtime animal lover who has a Lab mix named Retro and has been fostering dogs for Last Paw Rescue in Tomah.
Children who witness other crimes or who have to appear in court for another reason also can use support, she said.
“There are a lot of facility dogs that work in conjunction with child advocacy centers,” Clark said. “Counties with such a program see a big benefit — kids are more comfortable.”
When Sue Falch, a criminal defense attorney with the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office, heard about the proposal, she wanted to be part of it.
“When I’m upset and things are bothering me, I pet (my dog) Morgan, and it calms me down,” Falch said.
In addition, many people, especially children, are drawn to dogs, Falch said. When she walks her 11-year-old English Lab, kids often come up and ask to pet her.
“I can imagine how much it would mean to a scared child to be able to pet or snuggle with a dog,” Falch said.
If not in conflict with CATCH’s primary mission, the facility dog also could be used to support vulnerable adults at the CAC and courthouse; juveniles appearing in juvenile court; and adults appearing in the county’s treatment courts.
“For many of my clients, just being in court is nerve-wracking,” Falch said. “Petting a dog could help.”
Workin’ like dogs
Before a facility dog could come to Eau Claire, more work needs to be done. For example, a pup would need to be selected and trained, along with its handlers.
In addition, the group also needs to raise $5,000 — an estimated amount to cover the animal’s first two years of care. Hoping to help that along, Falch reached out to Pat Williams, a dog lover and longtime dog park supporter involved in the annual Doggie Swim Fest in Eau Claire.
Part of the proceeds from this year’s dog swim will be split between the city’s off-leash recreation area account and the CATCH proposal, Williams said.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Williams said of the plan, “and I’m surprised it has taken so long to make this happen.”
Doggie Swim Fest is from noon to 3 p.m. Monday, Sept. 3 — Labor Day — at Fairfax Park Pool.
The pool is open that day exclusively to the canine crowd, hoping to beat the dog days of summer. The cost is $10 per dog, and owners must show proof of current vaccinations.
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