PAW PAW, Mich.-- The Van Buren County prosecutor's office is looking for a new hire of a different breed--literally. They are adding a dog to their team as an advocate, hoping the new four-legged friend will help comfort victims of all ages, especially in cases where children come to testify in court.
Van Buren County prosecutors have been thinking about this idea for a couple of years and hoping a non-profit like the Canine Advocacy Program is going to make it happen for them.
The program has already helped 12 other counties around Michigan and is even making its way into Indiana. The big idea here is to ease the trauma a child experiences when required to testify with the suspect in the same room in a justice system designed for adults.
The county formally applied for a dog a couple of weeks ago, said Van Buren County Prosecutor Michael Bedford.
“When [children] come to the court, they will have a friend, and they will kind of be looking forward to that experience,” said Bedford.
Bedford says the dogs are highly trained to sense nervousness and stress. He says the idea a perfect fit for children that might have to testify in a courtroom just feet away from their perpetrator. Taking the stand with a dog at their side could mean the difference between putting a criminal behind bars or allowing them to go free.
"We are asking 7- or 8-year-old children to sit 20 feet away from somebody who may have sexually assaulted them. That’s a lot,” said Canine Advocacy Director, Dan Cojanu.
“I have had some cases where the children have been so frightened in the courtroom, we have had to do the testimony by closed circuit television, where the perpetrator is so familiar with the family and has conditioned over such a long period of time of victimization that the idea of a victim even being in the same room of the perpetrator sometimes is so unbearable,” said Bedford.
After applying to receive an advocate dog from Canine Advocacy Program, they are now sixth on the organization's waiting list.
The organization's dogs are donated from another program in Rochester, Mich., called Leader Dogs for the Blind. Cojanu and his team then put the dogs through a rigorous training process that could could cost the average citizen $40,000 but instead will be provided by the prosecutor's office.
"It costs the tax payer nothing," said Cojanu. "The only expense over and above what a pet is, is the insurance."
Bedford says there is nothing illegal or unfair to the defendant about these trained dogs sitting in court.
Canine Advocacy Group is meeting with the Van Buren County Prosecutor’s office March 26 for a presentation on the canine advocates.