Play Therapy Play Therapy December 2011 : Page 6
�a;iÌÃ LÞ �a;V> �d;`ÌÀ The author makes a compelling challenge for us to work on behalf of our play therapy clients outside of our therapeutic playrooms. * �c;]  **] ,*/-The Play Therapist as Advocate for Children in the Court System Þ �c;>Û` ° �a;ÀiÃ >Ü A golden retriever, named Rosie, captured the imagination and hearts of many across this country, when, on June 13, 2011, she entered a courtroom in Poughkeepsie, New York with her handler Sherry Cookinham. Rosie, an 11 year-old service-trained dog, was called out of retirement for a high-stakes assignment. No dog in the history of New York courts had been allowed to accompany a child witness to the stand to provide comfort during testimony. Media coverage of Rosie’s groundbreaking mission involved all the major TV networks as well as an article in the NY Times (links to the TV news’ videos and Times article can be accessed at www.childtherapytechniques. com). Jessica (fictitious name), a courageous 15-year-old, took the witness stand on that day after Dutchess County Court Judge Stephen Greller ruled in favor of the petition by Senior Prosecutor Kristine Hawlk to allow the dog to comfort Jessica as she gave testimony regarding repeated sexual abuse by the accused. In the court proceeding regarding the petition, Lori Stella, a licensed www.a4pt.org 6 PLAYTHERAPY December 2011
The Play Therapist As Advocate For Children In The Court System
David A. Crenshaw PhD, ABPP, RPT-S
A golden retriever, named Rosie, captured the imagination and hearts of many across this country, when, on June 13, 2011, she entered a courtroom in Poughkeepsie, New York with her handler Sherry Cookinham. Rosie, an 11 year-old service-trained dog, was called out of retirement for a high-stakes assignment. No dog in the history of New York courts had been allowed to accompany a child witness to the stand to provide comfort during testimony. Media coverage of Rosie’s groundbreaking mission involved all the major TV networks as well as an article in the NY Times (links to the TV news’ videos and Times article can be accessed at www.childtherapytechniques. com).
Jessica (fictitious name), a courageous 15-yearold, took the witness stand on that day after Dutchess County Court Judge Stephen Greller ruled in favor of the petition by Senior Prosecutor Kristine Hawlk to allow the dog to comfort Jessica as she gave testimony regarding repeated sexual abuse by the accused. In the court proceeding regarding the petition, Lori Stella, a licensed Clinical social worker, and the therapist who had treated Jessica for the prior nine months, strongly asserted that the comfort of Rosie was essential to prevent further psychological harm to Jessica and to enable her to give accurate and complete testimony.
My part in this project dated back to the previous October (2010), when I attended and also presented at the annual Association for Play Therapy International Conference in Louisville, KY. In one of the workshops that I attended, given by my friend and valued colleague Sueann Kenney-Noziska, a member of the audience mentioned during a discussion of the stress on children when testifying in court, that a few states allow specially trained dogs to provide comfort to child witnesses. Hearing this excited my imagination because as Clinical Director at the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie (CHP) and Lori Stella’s clinical supervisor, I knew that Jessica would likely be required to testify in a trial within the next year. Upon my return to New York, I immediately began researching the idea of a courthouse dog. I found numerous articles written in newspapers and the popular press but what really gave this project credibility was finding the extremely helpful information on The Courthouse Dogs website: www. Courthousedogs.com.
Now convinced that this idea was credible and that these dogs had been used in Washington State since 2003 as a result of the work of Ellen O’Neill-Stephens, Esquire, founder of Courthouse Dogs and its Executive Director, Celeste Walsen, D.V.M., I called the District Attorney’s Office in Dutchess County and spoke with Marjorie Smith, the Bureau Chief for Special Victims. She was immediately receptive to the idea and she consulted with William Grady, the District Attorney who thankfully was also open to the idea. I supplied copies of the articles I had read plus the information from the Courthouse Dogs website that included useful information about the legal issues to the D.A.’s office.
Two months before the trial, momentum for this project accelerated. Marjorie Smith let me know that one of her senior prosecutors was handling the case, Kristine Hawlk. We found this seasoned prosecutor enthusiastic about the concept of a courthouse dog from the outset. Kristine Hawlk and her colleagues in the D.A.’s office impressed us with their sensitivity and compassion for children throughout the legal proceedings. We knew that the legal case was in good hands.
What later was to be known as “Rosie’s Team” moved into action. This project only succeeded because of the combined efforts of many dedicated and passionate advocates for children. Joining me in this project were Sherry Cookinham, who not only handled Rosie as a qualified trainer, but also boarded Rosie in her home and took care of her when Rosie wasn’t at work. During the day, Rosie worked under my direction and my associate Jennifer Lee, Ph.D. at CHP. Rosie participated in my sessions with children and was assigned to clinical colleagues to comfort children when talking about difficult issues in their sessions. Rosie bonded not only with Jessica but many other troubled children and even stressed staff members at the CHP. In addition to Kristine Hawlk and her colleagues at the District Attorney’s office, special credit goes to Lori Stella for her effective testimony on behalf of Jessica’s genuine need for Rosie to provide comfort in court.
The courtroom dog project represented a major commitment both financially and in human resources at a time when both are stretched at CHP in today’s tough economic times. Our Executive Director, Walter Joseph, who has been my boss for nearly 30 years is well known for his willingness to think out-of-the-box when it comes to helping children. We were grateful for the full support of our Executive Director and the backing of the Board of Managers. CHP has capably served at-risk children since 1847 (to put this into perspective 14 years before Abraham Lincoln was elected President).
Another important member of “Rosie’s Team” not yet mentioned is Rosie’s owner and trainer, Dale Picard, Executive Director of Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities (ECAD) in Torrington, CT, who along with his wife Lu, have trained service dogs for 15 years (website: ECAD1. Org). Dale and Lu generously allowed us to use Rosie for the purpose of this trial even though Rosie was in “retirement” at the time. Although service dogs are rigorously trained, Rosie is a standout among the dogs that ECAD trains. Dale told us that only 10 to 15 percent of the dogs he trains have a temperament as calm, sweet, and gentle as Rosie’s.
No wonder there was an instant bond formed between Jessica and Rosie—a bond that only grew as they spent more and more time together leading up to the trial. Jessica understood, however that Rosie was on loan to do a job, namely to provide comfort to her when she testified in court. It was made clear to Jessica that while Rosie was in court she would be available to anyone in the courtroom who was stressed and needed her comfort. She also was well aware that in the weeks preceding the trial that Rosie worked to comfort many children and adults at the CHP. Nevertheless, we told Jessica that after the trial we would arrange at her request for her to visit Rosie periodically. Please note that in August 2011, after Rosie resumed her retirement with the Picard’s, CHP obtained from Dale and Lu our own servicetrained dog, Ivy, a golden retriever, and a younger sister of Rosie.
The culmination of the special bond between Jessica and Rosie came when Jessica was asked on the witness stand to point to the man in the courtroom who had raped her. For a moment, Jessica froze in fear, but at that precise moment with Rosie at her side and Jessica petting her throughout her testimony, Rosie gently nuzzled Jessica and laid her head in her lap. In that moment of being comforted and soothed by her canine companion, Jessica was able to point to the accused. Four days later the trial was concluded with the jury Finding the defendant guilty on all counts. That verdict is now being appealed by the defense. When Jessica learned the verdict she hugged her therapist Lori, Sherry, Rosie’s handler, and me, but most of all, Rosie. Jessica is an unusually kind-hearted and generous child so she did not take pleasure in the fact that the man who raped her was going to prison but she couldn’t help but express tears of joy that she had been vindicated and relief that it was all over. Pictures were taken with her and Rosie’s team with Jessica, of course hugging Rosie! Her two favorites of these pictures were framed and I presented them to her to keep and cherish.
As a clinical psychologist who has worked for more than four decades with child trauma and vulnerable children at-risk when faced with conditions of high-stress, this experience has been exhilarating and heartwarming. Since the Supreme Court ruling in 2004 upholding the right of the defendant to confront their accuser, the previous protective measures for vulnerable child witnesses, namely testimony by videotaping or closed circuit TV is rarely approved by the judicial system.
Now judges are required to consider the best way to limit psychological harm to children testifying in open court by permitting them to hold comfort items or allowing a support person in proximity to the child versus the possibility of prejudice these accommodations would have on the defendant. Thus the case for courthouse dogs becomes even more compelling because if done correctly the presence of the dog can better reduce stress on the child while also being less prejudicial to the defendant.
Although the judicial system has been concerned about the possible psychological harm to minors required to give testimony, many judges may not understand that the risk of traumatization or in some cases re-victimization is real and can make it difficult for the child witness to describe what happened (Herman, 1992, 2003). One of the essential conditions for children to disclose highly distressful experiences and in extreme cases, traumatic events, is a sense of safety established in an interpersonal context where trust has been established. These are conditions usually established with trusted family members or a child therapist who builds bonds of trust with the child gradually over time. These are conditions impossible to replicate in the courtroom and the risk is accentuated during crossexamination even when a defense attorney proceeds in a sensitive manner to challenge the child’s account of the Events. To create a greater sense of safety for children giving courtroom testimony, a courthouse dog can play a valuable role.
The case for the use of the courthouse dog becomes even more persuasive because the scientific literature suggests that this could not only be a win for countless children who are exposed to potential emotional harm by testifying under the high-stress conditions of open court but also a victory for the judicial system. Anything that brings comfort and reduces the stress on child witnesses is likely to yield more accurate and complete testimony. This is even more true the younger the child witness and the more heinous the crime they witnessed or experienced as a victim (Chae, Goodman, Eisen, & Qin, 2011).
Research in cognitive and neuroscience fields has shown that anxiety in children interferes with verbal expressiveness and information processing. This is because the child’s threat response which entails the release of stress hormones to mobilize the body to deal with danger will decrease their cognitive/contextual abilities of sequential memory, verbal skills, concentration, focusing or attentional skills, so they may not be able to communicate to the court what they are able to report when calm (Chae, Goodman, Eisen, & Qin, 2011).
Further, in studies of the effects of anxiety in children on task performance, a consistent result has been that anxiety disrupts performance on verbal tasks significantly more than on non-verbal tasks (Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007) . This has important implications for testimony by child witnesses since the child on the witness stand is required largely to give a verbal account under the high stress Conditions of an open courtroom in the presence of the defendant.
Research is ongoing and by no means complete, since there are far more studies on the effect of anxiety on information processing in adults then children, but the research to-date in the cognitive, neuroscience literature suggests that anxiety impacts in a negative way on verbal expression and information processing in children (Field, & Lester, 2010; White, Suway, Pine, Bar-Haim, & Fox, 2010).
Further, crucial to accurate child testimony in the courtroom, anxiety in children negatively impacts verbal abilities more than non-verbal abilities (Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007). Clearly many cases have led to plea bargaining because the child simply is too anxious to testify at all, while other prosecutions have failed due to the child being unable to give complete testimony due to verbal “shutdown” under the stressful conditions of the courtroom. More complete and accurate testimony is in the best interest of providing justice for all and this is more likely achieved with child witnesses when anxiety is reduced.
Since courthouse dogs have been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, it makes the case for use of a dog such as Rosie extremely compelling. The strong bond so quickly established between Jessica and Rosie was a contemporary example of an ancient and enduring attachment that Meg Olmert (2009) has described in her book: Made for Each Other. Olmert explains the biology of bonding between humans and animals that has played a crucial role in the survival of the human species. In particular, Olmert delineates the role of oxytocin, a hormone that produces a chain reaction of positive emotions and responses when we engage in a positive manner with another person or animal. I dare say the courtroom is not the place where you would expect to see an outpouring of oxytocin. May that in a small way begin to change as more highly trained dogs enter the courtroom not only to comfort child witnesses but anyone else in need in that high stress, psychologically hazardous environment.
I, with the assistance of Lori Stella, am now embarked on a mission to educate mental health professionals and prosecutors on the proper use of courthouse dogs in the hopes that the comfort these specially trained dogs offer can reduce the potential or re-traumatization of child witnesses in forensic interviews, grand jury, and open court testimony. One step in this process was described in the “Guidelines for Prosecutors in Reducing the Risk of Child Trauma Reactions when Testifying “ article (July 2011) on the Courthouse Dogs website (www.courthousedogs.com). I wrote the guidelines with input from some of my well-known play therapy colleagues. It is not always comfortable to step out of familiar play therapy offices to advocate in the larger arenas of the criminal justice system but the skills of the play therapist are needed in such venues as never before.
Chae, Y., Goodman, G. S., Eisen, M., & Qin, J. (2011). Event memory and suggestibility in abused and neglected children: Trauma-related psychopathology and cognitive functioning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 110(4), 520-538
Eysenck, M., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance. Emotion, 7(2), 336-353.
Field, A. P., & Lester, K. J. (2010). Is there room for ‘development’ in& developmental models of information processing biases to threat in children and adolescents? Clinical Child Family Psychology Review, 13, 315-332.
Herman, J. L. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Herman, J. L. (2003). The mental health of crime victims: Impact of legal intervention. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 16(2), 159-162.
Olmert, M. (2009). Made for each other: The biology of the human-animal bond. New York: Da Capo Press.
White, L. K., Suway, J. G., Pine, D. S., Bar-Haim, Y., & Fox, N.
A. (2011). Cascading effects: The influence of attention bias to threat on the interpretation of ambiguous situation. Behavior Research and Therapy, 49, 244-251.
About the Author
David A. Crenshaw, PhD, ABPP, RPT-S, is Clinical Director of the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie, Founder of Rhinebeck Child and Family Center, LLC, past president of New York APT, and an editorial board member of the International Journal of Play Therapy. He was assisted at the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie by Lori Stella, LMSW. Dacrenshaw@frontiernet.net