The courts in Lake County, Illinois, might each soon have a new canine member officially serving alongside the lawyers, judges, and clerks. Mitchell, a two-year-old yellow Lab, already works with the State Attorney’s Office in Lake County to help children in cases that involve physical abuse. If Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signs new legislation, Mitchell’s role will expand from just helping with the initial interviews to being in the courtroom when minors or developmentally disabled adults give testimony.
“When these children come in to be interviewed, it can be incredibly stressful,” State Attorney Michael Nerheim said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune earlier this month. “A lot of thought and care goes into making that process as comfortable as possible for our victims. The presence of a highly trained dog is one tool that will undoubtedly help some children through this process.”
James Magna, an investigator with the State Attorney’s office told the Daily Herald, “He literally just lays there during the interview. He’ll kind of lay on their toes most of the time, and they love to be able to reach down and pet him and know that he’s there during an interview. As soon as we get in an interview room, I hand over the leash to a child. It’s kind of symbolic, a way to let the child know they’re in control, when there are many instances where they haven’t been that bring them here to this building.”
Some coverage of Mitchell has described him as a therapy dog, which isn’t quite correct. Mitchell is a facility dog, which requires very specific training and behavior standards. The legislation before Rauner specifies that any dogs used during courtroom testimony must be trained as facility dogs, not merely therapy animals.
While many courts throughout the country allow therapy or facility animals to be used during interviews or during testimony, it’s usually on a case-by-case basis, and the dogs tend to be contracted rather than regular members of the staff. Nerheim, who first brought Mitchell into the office, says that he believes the Lake County office is the only one in the state to have a full-time facility dog. If the legislation goes through, Illinois would be only the third state with a law that sets out rules for using dogs in the courtroom.
Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, a former Kings County prosecutor who helped Seattle establish the country’s first courtroom dog program in 2004, has praised the legislation and Nerheim’s efforts. She says that the choice to use trained full-time facility dogs is the right one: “I think they’re of the most benefit if they belong to the office and go to work every day.” Even so, she told the Daily Herald that there have been some problems with courtroom dogs — for instance, some have fallen asleep and started snoring, distracting jurors from the testimony. However, the establishment of clear guidelines for courtroom dogs is partly intended to help judges know how to address those situations, as well as to know when a courtroom dog is appropriate.
See the video below for an interview with Mike Nerheim and Mitchell.
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