Every Tuesday, Ellie – a 4-year-old black lab mix – reports for work at the Marion Superior Court’s Juvenile Division. She is a pioneer of sorts, as the first dog in the state to be actively working in Indiana courts, says her handler, Tiffany Fulcher.
Fulcher is the director of community outreach for the Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault and director of INCASA’S Indiana Canine Companion Alliance. The program’s mission is to comfort children and adults who have been the victim of violence and/or sexual abuse. The INCCA program is modeled after similar programs in other states which, like Indiana’s program, are gradually beginning to gain more attention for their role in helping minimize stress for victims.
Ellie is a trained facility dog, which means she is comfortable in a wide variety of settings. Her days are anything but routine, as she may accompany Fulcher to meet with victims at support groups and rape crisis centers, attend depositions or work the crowd at an INCASA event. She recently traveled to St. Joseph County to meet with an adult victim prior to a trial. And on slow days, she may spend the day snoozing in her cubicle at the INCASA office.
Ellie sits in on hearings in cases involving children in need of services, which Fulcher said could be anywhere between three and 14 cases per day. Since becoming a regular visitor to Marion County Juvenile Judge Marilyn Moores’ court, she has made quite a few friends.
“I would say the older kids usually always request to talk to the judge alone,” Fulcher said, adding that many older children seem reluctant at first to rely on Ellie’s support. “We always stay in there, because the judge says: ‘Hey, that’s what (Ellie) is here for.’ I would say about nine out of 10 times, the kids sit on the ground with Ellie, and they’re petting her, and I just pretty much act like I’m not there. So she helps them – helps the kids – but she’s also available for the staff, too.
“That was one thing that Judge Moores loved about it … if we’ve had a long day the judge will take a 15-minute recess, and she’ll come over on the ground with Ellie and just kind of pet her for a moment, and get back up and start a new case.”
Moores recently returned from an extended trip overseas. While she was away, she left instructions ensuring that victims would still be able to see Ellie.
“She was the one who adapted the program, and she said, even though I’m leaving, (Ellie and Fulcher) are still to be here,” Fulcher said.
Goals, training and standards
Fulcher explained that INCCA’s role is not to train dogs like Ellie, but rather to help others around the state set up similar programs.
“The main thing with our program is that we go to other organizations and we pilot the program. So we go in and we do let them utilize Ellie, whether it’s for a week, a couple of days or a 30-day trial period,” Fulcher said. “And then once we pilot a program, then we help them get their own facility dog – which is through our partner ICAN, the Indiana Canine Assistant Network.”
ICAN is the only organization in Indiana that is certified by Assistance Dogs International. Through ICAN, incarcerated women train service dogs to meet ADI standards.
Ann Ronayne, ICAN’s director of client services, explained that the difference between a service dog and a facility dog like Ellie is that facility dogs benefit from having variety in their jobs.
“A dog that makes a good facility dog likes the subject to change once or twice or eight times in a day,” Ronayne said. While Ellie displays the “laser focus” that all service dogs must have, Ronayne said, she and other facility dogs “appreciate the opportunity to rotate between people and between activities.”
The Seattle-based Courthouse Dogs is credited with being the first organization in the country to introduce a dog into court. Courthouse Dogs founder Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney in Seattle, first brought her son’s service dog, Jeeter, to work with her on the one day Jeeter could not accompany her son. Since 2003, O’Neill-Stephens and partner Celeste Walsen, executive director of Courthouse Dogs, have traveled the country, advocating for the use of dogs in court.
After seeing the two women present on this topic at the 2008 National District Attorney Association conference, Judi Johnson, former executive director of the Marion County Child Advocacy Center, decided that a dog might benefit children she worked with. She traveled to Seattle to learn more about the program. O’Neill-Stephens and Walsen connected Johnson with ICAN, which raised and trained a facility dog named Mya for Johnson.
“I’d been a prosecutor for 16 years … and it was really the only thing I’d seen in 16 years of prosecution that actually was effective in reducing stress and comforting victims during the criminal justice process,” Johnson, who is now self-employed, said.
“These days, Mya works here and there when I handle cases as a volunteer CASA for Child Advocates, and we are hoping to put her back to work full time as INCASA expands their INCCA program,” she said.
Currently, 11 states and Santiago, Chile, use dogs in courthouses. The trend has been slow to catch on, and one reason may be that not everyone agrees that canines belong in the courts.
On Aug. 8, The New York Times featured a story about how the state’s first judicially approved courthouse dog, Rosie, helped a young victim talk about being assaulted by her father. The Times reported that because of Rosie’s gentle nudging and encouragement, the victim was able to testify against her father, resulting in a guilty verdict and a sentence of 25 years to life. The defendant’s attorneys said they would appeal.
Joel Schumm, a professor at Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, said that while he understands that dogs like Rosie and Ellie can minimize distress for victims, he wonders if defendants in such cases are really getting a fair trial.
“Some people have analogized it to a child taking a teddy bear to the stand, but a dog is completely different,” Schumm said. A lot of people love dogs, and that could influence their ability to be objective, he explained.
Courthouse Dogs advocates for dogs to comfort victims but said that the dogs may help defense attorneys, too. As an example, on its website, Courthouse Dogs reports that a defense attorney and the child she was cross-examining were both petting the same facility dog simultaneously, which made the process seem less interrogatory and more like a conversation. Schumm said he has heard the argument that dogs could be used by both defense and prosecution to attain results.
“I’m not sure what the stopping point is,” he said. “How do you ensure some standard of consistency throughout the state? You could end up with a patchwork of different rules around the state once it starts to happen.”
Courthouse Dogs provides a sample motion for attorneys who plan to introduce dogs into court, as well as recommendations for what language to use. Schumm said that if Indiana courts start warming up to the idea of dogs helping witnesses, he would like to see the creation of statewide guidelines regarding the scope of their usage.•