IONIA — Even the most mature adults, when talking about being victimized by a crime, are reduced to a queasy stomach, sweaty palms, stammering answers and unwelcome tears while testifying in the sterile environment of an imposing courtroom in front of unsmiling, suit-wearing strangers.
Imagine how it feels for a child.
With this in mind, the Ionia County Prosecutor’s Office recently implemented a new program specifically aimed at helping children navigate the unfamiliar criminal justice system.
Late last summer, the Canine Advocacy Program was brought to Ionia County — one of only two or three counties in Michigan to take advantage of the service. The program headquartered in Novi was developed to provide advocacy services to child victiams utilizing a highly trained dog to help alleviate the anxiety associated with being involved in the court system.
“It’s beneficial because anything that we can do that eases a victim’s experience in what is often a trying and uncomfortable experience is something that we should take on,” Ionia County Prosecutor Ronald Schafer said. “It’s a pretty obvious way to help victims, particularly child victims, who are not at all familiar with the process and are reluctant to talk about what happened to them. It made every bit of sense.”
Jeannie Wernet formerly worked in Ionia County’s 8th Judicial Circuit Court collections office. When the court’s crime victims services coordinator left, Wernet was a natural choice to fill the grant-funded position, as she had already been working alongside the court advocate.
Last summer, after discussion between Schafer and Wernet, they contacted the Canine Advocacy Program. Volunteers with the program place canine advocates in court situations with the help of Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills.
Patty, a 5-year-old, 62-pound black Labrador retriever, was a former leader dog, but had been returned by the blind owner who was no longer able to walk. Wernet was more than happy to give Patty a new home and a new purpose. Wernet now works a dual role as the court’s crime victims services coordinator and the court’s canine advocate.
“She lives with me,” Wernet said of Patty. “She comes to work with me. We implemented her into what we currently do.”
Patty now spends her days in courtrooms or the hallways thereof, often with children who are looking for a friendly and familiar face amidst all the strangers and high-stress situations. Court officials often encourage children who are having a difficult time talking about a negative experience to first whisper their story into Patty’s ear. Children often feel more comfortable talking to an adult after first sharing their secrets with Patty.
“She kind of alters the climate,” Wernet said of Patty. “She changes the dynamic that the child comes into. They come into a foreign environment and are asked to talk about things they really don’t want to talk about. She gives them something to focus on and loosens up their ability to talk.”
Patty also helps give children a pleasurable distraction during much of the downtime between court hearings. But children aren’t the only ones who benefit from Patty’s presence.
Recently, a man sitting through difficult testimony in a death case began feeling very anxious. Patty, who was in the courtroom, noticed the man fidgeting around. The dog walked over to the man and laid her head in his lap. The man placed his hands on the dog’s head and immediately relaxed. His mood noticeably changed.
“Our primary focus is on children, but she has attended hearings with adults who are nervous or highly stressed and she has been very effective in those situations as well,” Wernet said of Patty. “Her favorite thing to do is just to lay and chill. Most of the time people don’t even realize that she’s there.”
The Ionia County Prosecutor’s Office is working to raise awareness of Patty and the services she offers by passing out baseball card-type photos of Patty at local schools. Patty also has her own social media website. Search “Patty Canine” on Facebook.
“Part of what makes our program successful is all of our judges have supported it,” Schafer said. “The dog is like a support person who can’t influence the child one way or the other, but just supports them at every turn.”
While not working at her office job, Patty is just like any other dog. She loves playing in the water, having her belly scratched and eating carrots.
The Canine Advocacy Program is a non profit corporation and a licensed charitable organization in Michigan. For more information, call (248) 701-6611 or visit capmich.com online.