Canines help child-abuse victims go to court

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Cadbury and Shiloh aren’t your typical magistrate and prosecutor. They may be wearing the requisite robes and uniforms, but they’re actually dogs, and they are helping child victims of sexual abuse pursue justice.
by GILLIAN KLAWANSKY | Dec 05, 2019

Using dogs to help children heal and tell their experiences in a legal setting has had much success, according to Shaheda Omar, the clinical director of the Teddy Bear Clinic, which assists victims of child abuse. And with such a high abuse rate, any success is a huge step towards stemming the problem.

We may be in the 16 days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, but for Omar, this is a battle waged 365 days a year. “South Africa is the 128th largest country in the world,” she says, “but if we look at the prevalence of abuse, we’re in the top five of the most violent nations. We need to realise that child abuse is not your problem or my problem, it’s our problem.”

The Teddy Bear Clinic often uses innovative programmes to facilitate healing and prepare for court. Canine-assisted therapy is one such programme.

Omar and representatives from the non-profit volunteer organisation Touch our Pets Therapy Dogs, known as TOP Dogs, reveal how dogs help children. She was speaking at a recent event hosted by the Union of Jewish Women’s (UJW’s) Shalom Bayit Project and Koleinu.

There are two types of dogs, those who assist children to prepare for court, and therapy dogs.

Omar says the Teddy Bear Clinic began its court-preparation programme for children in 1997. “It began in response to the fact that children’s evidence was viewed with caution,” she says. “Children are the most vulnerable and marginalised population group. When they’re sexually abused, they can’t always provide a clear and coherent account of what happened as they can’t make sense of it themselves.”

The legal process often results in secondary victimisation as children are forced to relive the trauma in a scary setting that they don’t understand. “This violation is more gross because they have to retell their story repeatedly and are questioned about explicit details,” says Omar. “Since the inception of the court-preparation programme, we can see that more and more cases are being reported and finalised.”

However, it’s far from an ideal situation. According to Omar, 65% of cases that go to trial are withdrawn, and 75% of those are rape victims. “Yet, in the past few years, we’ve received a number of life and other harsh sentences, and this really motivates other children and families to come forward.”

TOP Dogs came on board in 2015, taking the Teddy Bear Clinic’s court-preparation system to the next level. In the clinic’s mock court room, the dogs are allocated a role and position. “The children come in, and they’re introduced to the role, not to the dog,” says Belinda Lamb of TOP Dogs. “Our role is to support the children, and if the dogs and the children wish to interact, it’s entirely up to them. We do court preparation once a month, and have seen remarkable changes in the children.” Children look to the “magistrate” – played by the dog – and have to identify him and understand what he does. The more they practice, the less threatened they feel.

The Teddy Bear Clinic offers court preparation to children between the ages of three and 18. “The aim is not to teach the child what to say in the courtroom,” says Omar. “It’s about saying it as it happened, speaking the truth, and getting the child to understand the difference between the truth and a lie.

“We teach the child it’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’, or ‘I can’t remember’. It’s so critical that every child that has to testify is empowered and enabled to say things like this. This is how we help children to understand that they have rights and the responsibility to speak the truth, to talk about things as they happened.”

They are also taught how court works, and the fact that sometimes there is insufficient evidence, but it doesn’t mean the magistrate doesn’t believe them when the case is dismissed.

“We take them into the courtroom to allay their fears and anxieties and [help them] understand the process,” says Omar. “They’re reassured, and gain the courage to testify. We aim to empower them to become competent and credible witnesses. It’s about giving a voice to the voiceless. In most cases, we submit assessment reports to say that the child will suffer undue mental stress should they testify in open court. We strongly recommend that children testify in camera with the use of an intermediary where possible.”

Aside from court preparation, the dogs offer immense therapeutic benefits. “We have an amazing phenomenon called the silent process,” says Lamb. “Often, the children who come to the Teddy Bear Clinic are severely traumatised, there’s no communication, they’re just blank. We recently had one little girl that made contact with Shiloh, and they had a silent process. It’s something remarkable and unexplained that’s triggered between human and dog. All those good hormones are jumping around, the children relax, and they start communicating.”

Omar elaborates, “You can see there’s an exchange between dog and child. The rule is that there’s no interference, prompting, or engaging, you leave them to connect and work it out for themselves. The child’s whole demeanour changes. It’s a light-bulb moment.”

Often, there’s an initial fear of dogs among children who have grown up with parents scarred by apartheid, in which police and dogs were seen as synonymous and not to be trusted.

“When lots of the children first encounter the dogs, there’s fear and anxiety,” says Omar. It relates to how child-abuse victims feel about their attackers – they paint people of the same race as their attackers with the same brush, and therefore don’t trust them. As the children and dogs start interacting, the children learn to trust again in all areas of life. This was one of the rationales for bringing the dogs into the therapeutic process,” says Omar. “They start breaking down those barriers and stereotypes.”


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