More than 1,000 children who witnessed violent crimes or were themselves abused or neglected were forced last year to share their stories with a stranger at the Southern Arizona Children's Advocacy Center.
To ease that process, the center and the Pima County Attorney's Office are bringing in Russell, a 2-year-old golden retriever and specially trained "courthouse facility dog."
Over the past few years, prosecutors, law enforcement agencies, victims advocates and forensic interviewers across the nation have begun using specially trained dogs to comfort children as they work their way through the criminal justice process.
Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall met Ellen O'Neill-Stephens and Celeste Walsen from Courthouse Dogs at a national prosecutors get-together last year and became intrigued.
O'Neill-Stephens, a Seattle resident, spent 26 years as a prosecutor and realized the impact dogs could have on frayed nerves when she brought her disabled son's service dog, Jeeter, to juvenile court one day.
She retired and then began Courthouse Dogs in 2004. So far, she's helped place dogs in 17 states, Chile and British Columbia.
LaWall invited the two women to come to Tucson where they met with Kathy Rau, executive director of the advocacy center, and with law enforcement officials and Superior Court officials.
Using seized drug profits, the County Attorney's Office bought Russell from Assistance Dogs of the West, an accredited member of Assistance Dogs International, for about $11,000, for the dog and its training, Kent Burbank, Victim Services Division director for the Pima County Attorney's Office.
In addition, the office hired Courthouse Dogs for about $6,000 to help customize the program for Pima County's needs.
Russell, O'Neill-Stephens and Walsen arrived in Tucson on Sunday, as did Jill Felice, founder of Assistance Dogs of the West, and Linda Milanesi, its executive director.
For the past few days, Rau, a forensic interviewer and a victim advocate, has been working 12-hour days getting to know the 80 cues Russell has been taught over the last two years.
On Tuesday, Kyra McGuire, the 4-year-old daughter of one of LaWall's staff members, volunteered to let Rau test out some of the verbal and body cues she has learned so far.
Rau let Kyra walk Russell into her office. As Kyra sat on a couch, Rau instructed the 70-pound Russell to sit this way and that as Kyra giggled and scratched the patient dog.
Courthouse-dog training is especially precise, Felice said. Because they are often in offices or courtrooms, they have to know exactly where to sit so as not to interfere. They also have to know how to behave no matter what's going on around them or how people are reacting.
Russell has been taught cues having to do with navigation, position and obedience, said Felice, who described him as calm, soft and polite.
"He'd rather have you sit on the couch with him and pet him than getting a piece of food or a toy as a reward," she said. "He's getting highly rewarded throughout the day because he's getting to be the social dog that he is."
The plan is for Russell to sit in on most of the interviews done at the Children's Advocacy Center. Based on that, prosecutors will decide which children will especially benefit from having Russell with them through interviews and while testifying, Burbank said.
When not at work, Russell will live with Rau.
"If having a dog is what it takes to help these kids get through what they have to talk about, we really needed to do it," Rau said.
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