In 2016, in Anderson County, S.C., an eyewitness to murder and attempted murder was preparing to take the stand for The State of South Carolina vs. Robert Frost.
According to attorney Chelsey Hucker, the witness was incredibly anxious and unsure if she would be able to testify.
Enter Roma, a courthouse facility dog that gave the witness the capacity to testify by joining her on the witness stand.
“I got to see this witness go from ‘I cannot, I cannot do it,’ to testifying with Roma under the witness stand, and really making that case,” Hucker said. “We ultimately ended up with a conviction, and that alone is a huge impact.”
Often, witnesses and victims are forced to relive trauma when they describe a traumatic event during a trial. This can cause witnesses to experience physiologic responses which can impact their ability to speak. If the witness cannot testify, the jury is deprived of information that could be critical to the evaluation of the defendant’s guilt or innocence. This is where courthouse facility dogs enter the picture. They are professionally trained canines working across the globe in prosecutor’s offices, child advocacy centers and family courts. They primarily provide a calming presence and emotional support for children and vulnerable individuals during traumatic legal proceedings. As legally neutral companions for witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of crimes, these dogs help witnesses feel willing and able to testify.
O’Neill Stephens founded Courthouse Dogs in 2003 after seeing firsthand the importance of incorporating dogs into investigations and prosecutions to provide emotional support – especially to children and vulnerable individuals.
Over the years, the program has made great strides across the globe. As of August 2022, there were 295 dogs working the U.S. as well as additional dogs in Canada, Australia, Argentina, Japan, New Zealand, and parts of Europe.
Eight of these dogs are located in the Carolinas. With five facility dogs stationed in North Carolina and three in South Carolina, Courthouse Dogs has permanently altered the court system through advocating for the importance of emotional support during the judicial process.
“At the beginning of an investigation, especially in a forensic interview, kids have to leave their parent and have a perfect stranger ask them questions about [a traumatic event],” Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, founder of Courthouse Dogs, said. “A lot of these kids clam up, and when they clam up the police don’t have the evidence they need. There’s no way to move forward with the case easily if the child isn’t cooperating.”
Roma, the 9-year-old Labrador golden retriever mix has worked as a facility dog for the South Carolina court system since she was 2 years old. Roma’s handler, Hucker is a South Carolina attorney and the executive director of a child advocacy and sexual trauma center.
Hucker became involved in Courthouse Dogs in 2014 when she was working for the Anderson County Solicitor’s Office after her boss became interested in introducing this program to their district. As an avid dog lover, but not owner at the time, Hucker met the criteria to train to be a handler.
In 2016, Roma became the first facility dog in South Carolina.
What started as one facility dog at a prosecutor’s office in Seattle has become an international corporation with the goal of providing emotional support and reducing trauma for witnesses and victims throughout the judicial process.
O’Neill-Stephens, founder and policy director of Courthouse Dogs served as a prosecuting attorney in Seattle for 26 years, until retiring in 2011. She began her experience with assistance dogs when her son, Sean Stephens, who had cerebral palsy, got a service dog after he graduated high school.
One day when Stephens was unable to have his dog, Jeeter, with him, O’Neill-Stephens brought Jeeter to work with her in Juvenile Drug Court, unaware of the hugely positive impact that he would have on the kids in court that day.
“It ended up on the news and then the people in my office downtown started contacting me,” O’Neill-Stephens said. “Someone said, ‘I’ve got these twin girls, whose father sexually assaulted them. They won’t talk to me, what do you think about bringing Jeeter over here,’ so I did, and that was a big success.”
Jeeter went on to accompany the sisters into King County Superior Court during competency hearings and trial testimony as the first courthouse dog.
While O’Neill-Stephens didn’t want to regularly take Jeeter into work and away from Stephens, she recognized the need for dog-provided emotional support in the courtroom.
O’Neill-Stephens proceeded to request dogs from assistance organizations to be placed as fulltime courthouse dogs. In 2004 Canine Companions for Independence became the first assistance dog organization to place Labrador golden retriever mix, Ellie, in a prosecutor’s office.
Jeeter died in January 2011 at the age of 10, after years of being a companion to Stephens and a source of comfort to those he worked with at the courthouse.
Stephens unexpectedly passed away in February 2021 at the age of 38. Stephens and Jeeter were the inspiration for the Courthouse Dogs program.
Following years of steady growth, and the addition of Executive Director, Celeste Walsen, a veterinarian, to the leadership team in 2008, Courthouse Dogs was established as a nonprofit in 2012.
The program has many goals for the future of dog-provided emotional support in the courtroom, including making facility dogs more widely accessible to provide care to those in need.
“I would love to see legislation on a state and federal level,” Hucker said. “Some states already have courthouse dog legislation – Alabama has excellent legislation. There are certain states that provide better statutes for Victim Services than others. South Carolina does not provide a lot of victim support through statutes, and it would make it much easier for people to get facility dogs, like Roma, if they knew that by statute, they would be able to use them. If we had that legislation, it would be incredible.”
Despite proven benefits, due to the lack of legislation, many vulnerable witnesses and victims are unable to experience the comfort of having a facility dog present during court proceedings.
According to O’Neil-Stephens, a scientific study was conducted in Norfolk, Va., on the effect that a dog’s presence has on the cortisol and oxytocin levels in children. They ran two tests, one with and without the dog present. When the dog was present, it was seated on a loveseat with the child and placed its head on the child’s lap.
“They found when the dog was present, the cortisol levels went down and the oxytocin levels went up and it was much easier for the kids to talk about [traumatic events] while they were petting the dog,” O’Neil-Stephens said.
According to O’Neil-Stephens, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2017 stating that testifying in court qualifies as an adverse childhood experience, which has been found to impair brain development in children and can be linked to chronic health problems and substance misuse in adulthood.
For the presence of a dog to provide constant comfort to witnesses and victims in a courtroom setting, they require specific and in-depth training.
Prior to the hearing, the presence of a facility dog must be addressed in a pretrial motion. The judge and defense counsel observe the dog’s behavior during this time, and the judge will decide if the facility dog is allowed to be present during the trial.
During testimony and trials with a jury present, the presence of the dog must remain concealed due to the concern that jurors may feel more empathy toward the witness if they were aware of the dog. Facility dogs making any noise while on the witness stand would alert the jury to the presence of a dog and could result in a mistrial.
Training for facility dogs begins at birth. Even while nursing, the newborn puppies are exposed to the sounds of fire alarms, police sirens, and clattering noises, so they can learn at a young age not to be bothered by auditory stimulus and have less fear of unexpected noises.
“We’ve got to have dogs that can deal with chaos, unexpected things, riding up and down the elevator, people reaching out at them, and just be cool with that, and just lie there and be completely comfortable,” O’Neill-Stephens said.
Training for courthouse dogs lasts about two years and ensures that dogs will be able to go undetected during trials and provide everyone they meet with love and comfort.
When they complete their training, dogs are placed with a legal professional, commonly victim advocates, or forensic interviewers, who can bring the dog with them to the courthouse every day. Each handler receives about a 2-week-long training to be qualified to house, care for, and continue daily training for their courthouse dog.
Most dogs work and engage with people for at least 20 hours a week. Aside from scheduled play time, when they are working but not actively with a victim or witness, dogs rest in their handler’s office.
According to O’Neill-Stephens, Courthouse Dog’s facility dogs play a vital role in ameliorating the trauma people feel during investigations and prosecutions.
“Justice isn’t just about convicting the guilty, but also protecting victims and vulnerable individuals from being further traumatized by the legal process,” O’Neill-Stephens said.