Dogs support ‘vulnerable’ witnesses in Troy court

By: Terry Oparka | Troy Times | Published September 18, 2019

 Freida, an English golden retriever, spends time in Judge Kirsten Nielsen Hartig’s courtroom at the 52-4 District Court in Troy during a quiet moment Sept. 4.

Freida, an English golden retriever, spends time in Judge Kirsten Nielsen Hartig’s courtroom at the 52-4 District Court in Troy during a quiet moment Sept. 4.

Photo provided by Ruff Life Pet Photo

 Freida and Lance, a Labrador retriever, right, visit with Nielsen Hartig.

Freida and Lance, a Labrador retriever, right, visit with Nielsen Hartig.

Photo provided by Ruff Life Pet Photo

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TROY — Walking into a courtroom to testify and face cross-examination can be daunting.

When Dan Cojanu, 66 — a licensed counselor and a former supervisor in the victims services section for the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office — was offered retirement in 2008, he founded the nonprofit Canine Advocacy Program.

Cojanu said he has worked with neglected and abused kids since 1977.

He was aware of similar programs in other states. “I started researching it and saw we didn’t have it in Michigan. Nobody could tell me why we didn’t. So it took off from there.”

He said that the dogs in the program come from Michigan Leader Dogs for the Blind and were “career changed” because they were squirrel chasers or leash pullers, but they have the right personality to work with children.

“We’ve trained 35 dogs to do this,” he said. There are now 30 dogs working throughout the state, two of them in the Upper Peninsula.

Recently, Canine Advocate Program dogs have been used to provide support to veterans in trouble with the law, Cojanu said.

Allegan County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Elizabeth Peterson posted a letter on the Canine Advocacy Program Facebook page after a jury trial in June.

“The child victim was so happy to meet Belle and have the support of a loving canine while she testified on the stand for multiple hours and days. Just having Belle there alleviated so much of that anxiety and stress that a victim has to face on the stand when testifying against their abuser. It was a welcome relief for not only the victim, but also for her family and our office as well.”

Cojanu handles two dogs, Freida and Lance.  “We go wherever we’re needed. We arrive a half hour to an hour early to introduce the dog to the child. I say, ‘As long as you are in court, he (or she) is your dog.’”

“I will ask them, ‘Do you want to take the dog for a walk?’ And the court employees will ask, ‘Can I pet your dog?’” Cojanu said.

The dogs have supported children in court as young as 3 years old.

“It gave them an incredible new focus, instead of going to talk to the judge. It makes them feel safe. Once the anxiety comes down, they are superstars” while going through the court process, Cojanu said.

“Dan is doing such a service,” said Judge Kirsten Nielsen Hartig, of the 52-4 District Court in Troy. She said the Canine Advocacy Program dogs have been in her courtroom to support victims during two bench trials, where there is no jury present.

In one case, the dog supported a 60-year-old adult testifying in a stalking case and who “was visibly shaken in court,” Nielsen Hartig said. “It’s a very anxiety-producing event to walk into the courthouse. It’s a way to make a pretty uncomfortable situation palatable and a way to divert a person’s attention from the anxiety they are feeling. It’s a real service to a vulnerable witness.

“The two times they (the dogs) came in, I really didn’t know they were there. The dog just sits there. There is no barking. For me, it’s always a good day when I see them (Cojanu and a dog) walk in.”

She explained that by allowing the dog in court with someone who is testifying, “I  am not agreeing the person is a victim. I’m agreeing the person is vulnerable. If you have the ability to reduce anxiety at a court visit — it’s kind of your duty to do that.”

Defense attorney Jerome Sabbota disagreed.

He noted that cross-examination is a constitutional right and allows the jury to see the reaction of the person testifying.

“I understand being in the courtroom is stressful for everyone. They are traumatized. People wrongly accused are also traumatized,” he said. “People are presumed innocent. When you see a support dog, that’s telegraphing the presumption of innocence is not there.”

Sabbota said the conclusion the jury could reach if there is a support dog in court is, “We need a dog to comfort someone because something terrible has happened. You’ve removed the presumption of innocence and concluded he or she is traumatized.”

Cojanu said state grants that support child advocacy help to support the dogs’ expenses, grooming, vet care and food. “We don’t have steady funding,” he said, and they are only reimbursed for expenses. “We welcome fundraisers,” he said.

For more information on the Canine Advocacy Program, visit capmich.org or Facebook.com/CanineAdvocacyProgram.

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