Illinois facility dogs provide comfort in court

April 16, 2018

ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) — A northern Illinois county is using a new type of therapy dog to help in sexual assault and abuse cases.

Winnebago County began using facility dogs this year after a 2016 state law that allows such dogs to accompany children or developmentally disabled adults into court, the Rockford Register Star reported. Facility dogs are trained to walk with witnesses into courtrooms to calm people who have been traumatized or are afraid to testify.

“They give you courage,” said Deb Swain, a teacher, trainer and dog evaluator with Forest City Dog Training.

Sometimes people will grab onto her dog Rhea, and cry as a form of release, she said.

The animals may sway jurors’ opinion by making individuals with dogs seem more favorable, said Paul Vella, a Rockford lawyer. Jurors may miss evidence or testimony because they would be distracted by the dogs, he said.

Rockford lawyer Mark Byrd said he’s opposed to dogs being used in jury trials.

“What can be more sympathetic than somebody alleged to be a victim of a sex crime ... loving up on a puppy?” he said.

Byrd said he would be open to having facility dogs in bench trials, when a judge makes the decision instead of a jury, and in certain cases, such as those involving children in family court.

A judge can decide case-by-case whether to allow the animals in court, Judge John Lowry said. He recently granted one request in a child sexual assault case, but denied another request.

Lowry said that dogs can also be available for defendants.


Information from: Rockford Register Star, http://www.rrstar.com

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