Therapy dogs coming to Kent Co. courts

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Kent County courts will be getting some new volunteer staff – of the four-legged variety.

Support dogs will be available to children and special needs adult victims who have to testify.

The new program kicked off Wednesday with an introduction at the courthouse.

Many victims of crime will say the trauma they suffered having to testify about the crime in front of strangers and the person who may have victimized them is nearly as bad as the crime itself.

But now, Kent County is making 24 pooches available to help things a little less terrible.

At the Kent County District Court on the East Beltline, the 61st District and Kent County circuit courts downtown, dogs will be there to provide calming comfort to victims of crime.

“By having the therapy dogs available for them as they’re waiting as they come to court, eventually as they’re in the courtroom that will help them to remain calm, to not see this as a terrifying experience to add to their trauma,” said Kent County Circuit Judge Kathleen Feeney.

Feeney presides in the family division where children often testify.

A dog lover, Feeney was the driving force, even going as far as getting her own dog certified with West Michigan Therapy Dogs who provide the dogs for the courts

Less than a week ago, Public Act 236 went into effect allowing dogs to be used by the courts in Michigan, joining 35 other states that allow the practice in more than 155 courtrooms.

“It’s not just we’re guessing, there’s empirical evidence to support the fact that having dogs there provides this calming influence,” Feeney said

West Michigan Therapy Dogs is using the very best trained dogs for the court, with each dog receiving weeks of training in the courtroom using a child actor to play a victim. Dog handlers have to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

“Anything unexpected that happens isn’t gonna rattle them, they’re not gonna have an adverse reaction because they’ve been through so much training,” said Paula Nelson, vice president of Wet Michigan Therapy Dogs.

For now, the program is limited to the two courthouses and the dogs will not be in the courtroom during testimony.

“We wanna proceed slow and just keep them outside, get them more used to it see how the program goes, see how the victims receive it and see down the road if we move them into the courtroom or not,” said Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker.

Having dogs in the courtroom is being challenged at the State Supreme Court level after the Court of Appeals said it is allowable in the right circumstances.

“That’s what some of the challenges have been is that ‘hey, you’re creating more sympathy for a nice dog and a cute little kid and the jury’s gonna be moved by the visual of that versus looking at the facts,” Becker said.

The practice of dogs in courtrooms has survived similar challenges in other states.

Sadly, not everyone testifying in court can get a dog – it is only for those with special needs and will mostly be used for children.

“They’ve already gone through an initial trauma and coming back to retell their story so that justice can be served shouldn’t also be an additional trauma,” Feeney said.

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