Dog helps some get through court process

Sunday, June 3, 2012
In this May 11, photo, Sophie, 3, and her owner, victim advocate caseworker Bet Stapleton arrive at the St. Louis County Family Courthouse in Clayton, Mo. As a certified court therapy dog, Sophie walks the halls of the courthouse, providing comfort to children and families of pending cases. (johnny andrews ~ Associated Press)

CLAYTON, Mo. -- Sophie, a mutt of a dog with draping ears and dotted brows, is helping people in St. Louis County court tell stories of crime to judges, investigators and attorneys.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Sophie is the region's first court therapy dog and one of only three known to be working in Missouri. She has been part of St. Louis County courts since October.

At a recent hearing, an 8-year-old girl was recounting sexual allegations against her cousin. The cousin sat at one side of a conference table, with his mother, and stared. There were two lawyers. And there was Sophie.

The dog was perched quietly at the girl's feet and leaned her body into the child's leg. Occasionally she propped her black and tan chin into her lap.

"My daughter told us, `If I wasn't sure if I could answer a question, I would just look at Sophie and she would give me that look that it was OK to answer,"' recalled the child's mother.

Sophie reports to work every weekday with her handler and owner, Bet Stapleton, a victim advocate for the court. She has helped victims as old as 60 face alleged offenders and talk about crimes ranging from robbery to rape.

But she does her best work with kids, especially alleged sexual assault victims. Often, the allegations are against relatives or family friends.

"These kinds of allegations fracture families terribly, even those that previously were very close," said Stapleton. "Sophie empowers the victims and gives them a sense of control. Because one of the things you lose in any assault is a feeling of control."

Detractors of therapy dogs in court say the animals can prejudice the court in favor of the defendant.

Last year, a New York public defender appealed his client's conviction of raping and impregnating a 15-year-old girl because a dog was used during her testimony. The attorney argued that the stress of the courtroom deters young witnesses from making false statements, and that the dog could abet a child in a lie.

So far, Sophie has not garnered any objections from lawyers or judges, Stapleton said.

"Sophie is obviously good with kids," said Judge Kristine Kerr. "When she comes in, she just tucks herself on the ground, and you're really not aware she's there. But the kids can reach down and pet her when they need to."

How popular is the dog? She was recently nominated by co-workers as court employee of the year.

Therapy dogs are popular in nursing homes and hospitals. Studies show they reduce stress and help those in contact with them decrease heart rates and blood pressure. Advocates for people with autism have embraced the use of therapy dogs to help the disabled connect with the outside world.

In Missouri courts, Sophie joins a black Labrador retriever named Simon, based out of the Ozark Foothills Child Advocacy Center in Doniphan; and Ronny, another black Lab based at the Kids Harbor Child Advocacy Center in Osage Beach.

Stapleton heard about the benefits of the dogs at a conference on crimes against children in Texas four years ago. When she started working at the court, she floated the idea to superiors, who thought it would be a good idea.

Then two years ago her 14-year-old daughter was drawn to a gentle but sickly puppy that had been brought to a pet store for adoption by an animal shelter.

They adopted Sophie and Stapleton's teenage son took the primary role in nursing her to health. She was so docile and disciplined, that the family began to explore whether she could be trained to work by Stapleton's side in the courts.

She was an immediate hit.

The mother of the 8-year-old said her child's court case didn't result in the ruling they had hoped for. The family would like to forget most of the experience -- except for Sophie.

"We took pictures of her on our phones," the mom said. "The kids still look at them."

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