WAILUKU - As victim-witness courthouse dog for the Maui County prosecutor's office, a specially trained Labrador with a calm temperament is helping ease the fears and stresses of some child victims in criminal cases.
Nineteen-month-old Sadie has been on the job since she graduated June 16 from Hawaii Canines for Independence.
"As professionals, we have an obligation to provide children with as safe and calm an environment as we can, even though we have to do our job and ask difficult questions," said Deputy Prosecutor Simone Polak, senior attorney in the prosecutor's sexual assault unit. "With Sadie, it's already been demonstrated that she is going to be a good tool to be able to do that with kids."
First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Robert Rivera sits with victim-witness courthouse dog Sadie in the prosecutor’s Victim Witness Services center in Wailuku.
The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo
Sadie lifts her paw in response to a “high-five” command Friday from handler Ruth Mori, a victim-witness counselor with the Maui County prosecutor’s office. The Labrador works with child victims as the victim-witness courthouse dog for the Maui prosecutor’s office.
The Maui News / LILA FUJIMOTO photo
Victim-witness counselor Ruth Mori, who is the handler for Sadie, has interacted with child victims who show up for interviews at the prosecutor's Victim Witness Services center.
Last month, 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Joseph Cardoza gave permission for Sadie to be taken to the courthouse, where she has waited in a witness room with some children called to testify in court proceedings. Sadie is leashed and wears a blue vest signaling that she's working.
"The dog's mere presence has that calming effect and provides a sense of security for kids," said First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Robert Rivera.
Sadie hasn't accompanied a child witness into a courtroom, which would require approval from the presiding judge. While dogs accompanying child witnesses have been used in other jurisdictions, including Honolulu, that isn't something expected soon on Maui, Polak said.
"We're going to take puppy steps for now," Rivera said.
Just weeks into Sadie's work, attorneys and counselors have seen the benefits of having a victim-witness courthouse dog.
Polak recalled how one 6-year-old child sexual assault victim was having trouble focusing and was "very scared to talk about anything" during a couple of meetings.
"So we brought the dog and about 15 minutes after the dog came along, we were getting the story of what happened," Polak said.
The child was partially under a table, Polak said, when Mori had Sadie lie down nearby. "The child came out and started petting Sadie," Polak said. "The child was caressing the dog. Little by little, she started talking.
"Sadie made all the difference in the world," Polak said. "The child came back and was looking forward to coming back."
Rivera thanked the Maui-based nonprofit Hawaii Canines for Independence, which provided Sadie at no cost to the prosecutor's office.
The program selects and trains service dogs, beginning at 7 weeks old, with many assistance dogs provided to children and adults in the state with physical disabilities and special needs. The program retains ownership of the dogs, providing lifetime training and follow-up.
In training for a year and a half, Sadie has received the same level of training as a guide dog or service dog, said Mo Maurer, executive director of Hawaii Canines for Independence.
She said the courthouse dog program founders, including Ellen O'Neill-Stephens, a former prosecutor from Seattle, worked as consultants for Hawaii Canines for Independence in implementing a courthouse dog program in the state.
Sadie is the daughter of Pono, who was placed as the Honolulu prosecutor's courthouse dog a little more than a year ago.
In addition to numerous courthouse appearances, Pono has twice accompanied witnesses into courtrooms, said her handler, Dennis Dunn, program director of Witness Kokua Services for the Honolulu prosecutor's office.
In one case, he said Pono sat next to an 8-year-old girl testifying in a Family Court juvenile case, with the girl petting Pono during long pauses between a defense attorney's questions, Dunn said.
"Having the dog's presence provides a calming effect," Dunn said. "It makes people able to focus more on the task at hand, able to listen to the questions better, able to more thoughtfully answer.
"This is especially true for children. It really provides an opportunity for the child to stand up much better to the rigors of the process."
"It's an exciting new development in terms of the criminal justice system," Dunn said. "It's also so much fun. I certainly feel it's really worked out."
Said Maurer: "It's a whole population of people that I never expected we would be able to help with our program."
Sadie was sponsored by Carolyn Schaefer and Jack Gray. Her puppy raisers were Larry and Margot Jodoin and Wayne and Sue Yoshimura.
To be Sadie's handler, Mori completed one week of intensive training as well as review training. She also took a test that she had to pass by at least 90 percent. Trainers also worked with Sadie at the Victim Witness Services office.
Sadie knows 90 basic commands as well as some special commands adapted for her work with children who are sexual assault victims.
Mori said Sadie is "supercalm," even while riding in a car.
While Sadie may appear to be lying down or resting, when she wears her blue vest, she's working and will respond to commands, Mori said.
Sadie has primarily worked with children who are victims of sexual assault but also may be used to help other children who are victims or witnesses, Rivera said.
"If we think it's something they would benefit from, then absolutely," he said.
Sadie isn't at work every day and isn't used in every case involving children.
"Once we've gotten an idea of how the child responds and how the child has dealt with the particular trauma, then we can assess whether it would be beneficial," Polak said.
Before Sadie is used, counselors and attorneys will talk to family members to make sure a child doesn't have issues such as allergies or fear of animals, Mori said. If family members agree, the dog can be introduced to a child.
Part of her job as handler, Mori said, is to monitor Sadie so she doesn't become too stressed by her interactions with children.
"They take on emotions of people, which can be very stressful for them," Mori said. "They can sense sadness and happiness. She takes all that in when a child comes in."
Sadie is limited to participating in two interviews a day, Mori said.
Rivera said having a victim-witness courthouse dog expands the office's victim-centered approach to prosecution.
Last year, the prosecutor's office blessed its renovated Victim Witness Services office with a lounge and interview rooms to create a friendlier and less intimidating atmosphere for victims to meet with counselors and deputy prosecutors.
"Now we have a victim-witness courthouse dog that further facilitates that goal," Rivera said. "There's no question it does provide a service to our children who are thrust into the adult world of litigation and criminal justice."
Mori said she was grateful for the opportunity provided by Hawaii Canines for Independence.
After training dogs, "they hand the leash over to individuals and agencies like us to enhance people's lives," Mori said. "It's amazing.
"It humanizes our department," Mori said. "It's not just a government building. It makes it a lot more relaxed."
When Mori and Polak took Sadie on a visit to the courthouse, "she was a hit," Mori said.
"Everybody is happy and calm," she said. "All she does is let people love her."
"She brings out the best in people," Polak said.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at email@example.com.