SANTIAGO, Chile – The room falls silent. The family is nervous, as is the child. Everyone knows that in a few minutes an expert from the Chilean Investigative Police (PDI) will approach the little boy and ask him for details that he surely will not want to remember.
Inevitably, an investigation that involves a complaint about the sexual abuse of minors will always be painful, awkward and crude, according to Margarita Rojo, a forensic psychologist with the PDI.
But just at that moment, a Labrador named Take appears, approaches the boy and lets him pet her. The police teach the little boy a few verbal commands to make the dog greet him and obey his orders.
The boy starts to relax.
The parents smile.
Take will never abandon her new friend. Take works with the PDI Emotional Support Dogs Program, which supports sexually abused children who must undergo interviews and provide statements to authorities.
“This began in 2010 as a pilot project and has had excellent results, as it allows the victims to feel supported during the process,” Rojo added.
From the start of the project until the end of 2012, 97 children have been accompanied by Take, the only dog currently in the PDI’s program.
Authorities hope the dog will reduce the so-called “secondary victimization” that minors endure when facing up to an average of four interviews during the investigation and trial.
“The company of these animals creates a warmer, more trusting environment,” Rojo said.
Between January and September 2013, a total of 4,945 reports of sexual abuse were reported nationwide, up from the 4,479 cases reported during the same period last year, according to the National Office of the Public Prosecutor.
In addition to the PDI, the Centro Norte Prosecutor’s Office of the Public Ministry in Santiago also uses dogs when taking sexually abused children’s statements.
“One day, we received a call from the attorney for a girl who was supposed to testify as a victim in one of our cases. He told us that the little girl was working with these dogs as part of her reparative therapy and he wanted to know if it would be possible for the dog to accompany her when she testified at the trial,” said Cecilia Frei, the head of the Victim and Witness Assistance Unit of the Centro Norte Prosecutor’s Office. “We thought it was a beautiful idea. The experience was so positive that we have been consistently implementing it [from 2010] until today.”
A single interview
In September, the government announced a bill that raises the standards for the protection of sexually abused and violated minors in criminal proceedings.
The initiative is intended to prevent secondary victimization with the “single interview” concept.
The single interview consists of the recording of a videoconference at the start of the criminal proceedings, immediately after the complaint has been filed. Questions may be asked by representatives of the Public Ministry, attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant’s attorneys.
The goal is to bring the case to trial.
“We’ve made a lot of progress towards protecting children and respecting their rights and dignity, but we still have a long way to go,” Frei said.
Improvements in recovery
Fundación Bocalán Confiar is a nonprofit institution that seeks to contribute to the rehabilitation and social reinsertion of the disabled through the use of animals and is responsible for training the program’s dogs.
“Our courthouse dogs come from the genetic lines of our parent company in Spain, and they have undergone a two-year process of education and vocational training prior to entering the program,” Fundación Bocalán Confiar Director Cecilia Marré said. “They’re dogs with a very specific temperament. They’re independent and confident. They aren’t reactive or intrusive. And they’re very versatile.”
The use of courthouse dogs began in the United States in 2003 with the Courthouse Dogs Foundation, which seeks to raise awareness in the judicial system and expand the use of these dogs throughout the world.
Chile was the second country in the world to implement the program.
The Courthouse Dogs Foundation is present in 21 states within the U.S., with 54 dogs. The program is expected to be introduced in Guatemala in the near future.
“With the courthouse dogs, we have been able to counteract the negative emotions that are caused by testifying in court – such as fear, anxiety or shame – by introducing the feelings of happiness and tranquility that are generated by the presence of, and contact with, the animal,” Marré added. “This means that the children who initially refused to attend court now do so of their own volition.”
Marré said the Chilean court system has a 100% attendance rate in court by children who are part of the program and who testify of their own accord.
Though the use of these dogs doesn’t mean the child will provide more background, it does generate benefits for the process, according to Rojo.
“In terms of the police investigation, [the dogs] provide support because they allow both the children and the adults to attend court in a better psychological and emotional state after experiencing a situation with so much anxiety and stress,” she said.