And while it was ultimately the girl’s strength and support from her family that brought her through, she also got help along the way from an unexpected source: an imposing-looking but wholly affable German shepherd named Abby.
“This is the hardest thing these kids will go through in their entire life,” said the girl’s mother. Knowing Abby would be there during visits to the prosecutor’s office made going a little easier, the mother said.
The Prince William commonwealth’s attorney’s office — with Abby’s help — is joining authorities across the country who have turned to four-legged assistants to comfort some of the youngest and most fragile crime victims during the judicial process. More than 40 court-related offices in 16 states use therapy dogs for child abuse and other cases, according to Allie Phillips, who keeps track at the National District Attorneys Association. Other offices use service or facility dogs, which have different certification standards.
Abby is owned by Sandra Sylvester, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney who started bringing the dog to work to help her get used to the courthouse and prosecutor’s office before the formal “courthouse dog” program was launched.
During an initial visit with the 7-year-old and her mother around March 2010, Abby performed some of the tricks she knows: She looked away when offered a treat with the question: “Do you take things from strangers?” Then, she put her paw up when she was read the oath. Abby knows to bark when asked if she promises to tell the truth.
The girl began asking for Abby, and when she went to see prosecutors, she would lead the dog around the office on her leash. Simply petting and nuzzling Abby calmed the girl. Another thing had brought them together as well. A botched surgery left Abby incontinent, and she wears a diaper. The dog’s pain was something the girl could relate to, her mother said. Sylvester would tell the victim: Abby is “very strong; she’s getting through this just like you.’ ”
Using service or therapy dogs to assist victims dates to a district attorney’s office in Queens in the 1980s and a Mississippi courthouse in the 1990s. It has expanded nationwide, and in November the National District Attorneys Association’s board of directors passed a resolution supporting the use of courthouse dogs.
Since November 2011, the child abuse program at Norfolk’s Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters has enlisted Pecos, a golden Lab mix, said Michele Thames, a forensic interviewer there. Elsewhere in Virginia, Suffolk and Albemarle County are working to start dog programs, according to Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, who founded Courthouse Dogs.