Calming presence

Handler Madison Grantham of the Russell County District Attorney's Office with Josette, left, and handler Tamara Martin of the Office of Prosecution Services with Willow.

Children who are victims of abuse at some point must be interviewed and testify in court, a traumatic situation that is about to get what district attorneys believe will be some measure of relief.

The Alabama District District Attorney Association and Office of Prosecution Services are embarking into a groundbreaking program that brings specially trained dogs to the interviews and court appearances to comfort children.

Know as facility dogs in the program, Alabama has been testing the program and it has now to several counties across the state.

Cullman County District Attorney Wilson Blaylock said he is working with the Child Advocacy Center to secure a dog locally.

“There will only be so many available and we want to do this because the children need this,” Blaylock said. “It’s such a traumatic time when they have to be interviewed and then come to court. Even many of the parents have a hard time going through with it when their child is a victim.”

The first dog in Alabama entrusted with and trained to handle such responsibility is named Willow, a a 7-year-old, black Labrador mix. Her favorite thing to do is to sit and, oftentimes, lie quietly next to the feet of her human companion and perhaps enjoy a gentle pat or soothing rub, according to a news release announcing the program’s expansion.

“The training starts at birth,” Tamara Martin, special projects coordinator for the state’s Office of Prosecution Services and Willow’s five-year pal and handler, said of the process facility dogs go through before being certified for court. “They are conditioned to handle the stress, loud noises and things other dogs would consider threatening. They are trained to associate certain sounds with pleasure rather than sounds they should be afraid of.”

Willow is no longer alone as the only dog certified to work with crime victims in Alabama. Four other facility dogs are now on the job. They will be joined by two additional dogs in August. Within a year, there could be as many as 12 trained and certified dogs assisting crime victims, spread throughout the state, the ADAA and OPS announced at a press conference at the Montgomery County Courthouse.

A Victims of Crime Act grant for $700,000 through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is the main funding for the program. The grant is for one year, but is renewable.

Another contributor to the success of the program is Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that provides the dogs and trains them. Training for each dog costs about $50,000, according to Martin. Canine Companions places the dogs free of charge.

In addition to Willow, who is based in Montgomery, facility dogs are currently operating out of Dothan, Clanton, Phenix City and Huntsville. Next month, Lauderdale County and Shelby County will get dogs.

“Unfortunately, we sometimes have to put children on the stand to testify,” Blaylock said. “They have been through a lot by that point, but this program shows promise. It’s been tested in Alabama the reviews are positive for the children. Anything to help is what we’re looking for.”

Blaylock said the dogs can the companion for a children in both the initial interviews and in the courtroom when necessary.

Blaylock said the time-frame for having a dog available for Cullman County is uncertain, but the process is underway.

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David Palmer has decades of experience in the newspaper industry. He currently serves as editor of The Cullman Times.

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