Bill aims to allow therapy dogs in court to help kids who experience trauma testify

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia lawmakers will consider a proposal aimed at helping victims, especially children, who have to testify in court. They’re hoping to make it easier for those victims to have a four-legged friend by their side as they take the stand.

8News got an exclusive look at those efforts and how service dogs are being used in the courtroom.

At first glance, a friendly dog may not seem like it, but advocates and attorneys say they can be one of the best tools in some of the most disturbing cases involving the most vulnerable victims.

“Well if you could imagine being a 5- or 6-year-old child and being brutalized. Imagine having to relive the most terrifying moments of your life sitting 5 feet from the person that terrorized you,” said Camille Cooper with the National Association to Protect Children. “Anything that would aid in providing some comfort and easing the anxiety for that child to be able to testify is really important.”

Cooper is currently working with lawmakers on a bill that would make it easier for victims to request a service dog to be on the stand as they testify.

“It really helps the child gain the strength and the courage to be able to talk about what happened to them,” said Cooper.

“There’s no rules, there’s no laws, it’s not being handled the same way in each locality,” said Delegate Rob Bell, R-Albemarle County.

Bell, who is sponsoring the bill, says while some judges allow service dogs in court, there are no state guidelines for requesting a service dog. His bill would allow anyone in any jurisdiction to request one. A judge would ultimately make the decision….

“People are at a very fragile stage in their lives, court is very intimidating, it would help them testify if they could have access to a service dog in that setting,” said Bell.

“This is not just to provide comfort for them, it’s a public safety issue because we want the offenders to be able to be held accountable,” said Cooper.

Cooper says dozens of states already have a similar law on the books with 176 assistance dogs actively working in courtrooms across the country.

“This isn’t’ a new idea but it’s a good idea,” said Cooper.

Lawmakers will hold a news conference with a service dog that has worked in a Virginia courtroom on Monday. That’s also when the bills will be heard in committee.

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