PHILADELPHIA — Tension filled the hall outside a Bucks County, Pa., courtroom as three young boys waited to talk to a judge about some serious family problems. They sat on a bench, quiet and anxious, looking frightfully small.
Then along came Maggie, a miniature poodle who dances on command. She wagged her tail, did her jig, and parked herself in front of the brothers for a petting. The grownups watched the impossible happen: The children began smiling.
Similar scenes are playing out in courthouses across the nation as highly skilled dogs are being called on to calm victims and witnesses — especially children — facing the ordeal of testifying about often hellish matters.
In Philadelphia, the District Attorney's Office has a puppy in training. Dogs already are fixtures in certain courthouses in Washington, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Michigan and New Mexico. Houston's program, specifically for domestic-abuse cases, is called Paw and Order SDU (Special Dog Unit).
The presence of a dog "can't help but lighten the mood," said Linda McCrillis, Maggie's owner and handler.
In concert with Bucks County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert J. Mellon, McCrillis has developed a program using therapy dogs to calm the nerves of children summoned to court after being removed from parental custody, usually because of abuse or neglect. Since May, a half-dozen dogs — the poodle, two golden retrievers, a German shepherd, a schnauzer and a terrier — have been working the third-floor rotunda where Dependency Court participants wait their turn before the judge.
On rare occasions, when a child is severely stressed, the dog is allowed to go along to the witness box.
Easing the trauma of testifying has always been a challenge for those who work in the justice system. But it has become more vexing since 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed defendants' right to directly confront their accusers in court rather than through videotaped testimony or closed-circuit TV.
In addition, in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that took effect July 1, children who have been removed from parental custody must appear in court at least once a year so a judge can monitor their well-being.
Victims can risk further emotional damage by reliving their attacks in the sterile, adversarial atmosphere of a courtroom, David Crenshaw said. As clinical director at the Children's Home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., he has seen the impact that a furry friend can have on a child.
"I see the courthouse dog as leveling the playing field somewhat," he said.
Some, however, contend that a dog can tip the balance.
Last spring, for the first time in New York state, a victim was accompanied to the witness stand by a dog. Rosie, a golden retriever, sat with a 15-year-old girl — occasionally giving her a comforting nuzzle — as she testified that her father had raped and impregnated her.
Rosie now is at the center of the convicted defendant's appeal and of a burgeoning legal debate about courtroom dogs in general. His lawyers argue that a dog can give the alleged victim the appearance of truthfulness and tug at the hearts of pet-loving jurors.
The dogs-in-court concept goes back to at least 2003, when Seattle Juvenile Court prosecutor Ellen O'Neill-Stephens started to bring her son's service dog, Jeeter, to the office. She thought a dog might provide emotional support to young delinquents in a "high-stress environment."
O'Neill-Stephens soon co-founded Courthouse Dogs, an organization that promotes the use of service dogs in court settings.
The dogs, which undergo six to 10 months of training, are taught primarily to lie passively beside a witness, to provide unobtrusive comfort during interviews by police and prosecutors and during questioning on the stand.
"The dogs are for everybody in the criminal justice system," O'Neill-Stephens said.