The Child Witness Protection Program (CWP) at the London Courthouse in Ontario, Canada, has introduced a new initiative. Sweet Merel is a service dog whose purpose is to make it easier for children in custody disputes or who have witnessed terrible crimes to testify in open court. Testifying before a judge and jury can be an emotional and difficult experience for anyone. By its very nature, it demands returning to that moment in time when the crime occurred. This service dog is the very first of her kind to be brought into the Canadian court system. (See my article on Tara the Cat.)

 

Facility Dog, Merel, and Handler, Rachel Crawford
Crawford and Merel

The Child Witness Protection Program and its partnership with the London Family Court Clinic

The London Family Court Clinic is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving children and families in the Southwest Region of Ontario, Canada. Merel, the 'facility dog,' has only been on the job for three weeks, and has already helped six children to testify in court. The CWP has been in operation since 1987, and its alliance with the London Family Court Clinic has made the introduction of this special service possible.(See my article on: Blind Dog Teaches Children To See.)

Preparing a child to testify in open court

Preparing a child or teen to testify includes: education; coping strategies; emotional support and advocacy. Children and adolescents are called upon to testify either as victims or witnesses in case usually involving physical or sexual abuse, peer assaults or domestic violence. Research has indicated that facility dogs aid children greatly by healing to decrease symptoms of stress, such as rapid heart rate and high blood pressure. This in turn reduces anxiety and enables children to respond and think more clearly. (See my article on: Sassy the Chihuahua.)

More on sweet Merel and the National Service Dogs Agency

Trained by National Service Dogs, a respected agency that has been breeding, training and placing certified service dogs since 1996 and offers the only accredited canine-assisted intervention program in Ontario. This gentle and very loving dog is a comfort to children because she is a calming presence. According to Crawford: "She loves to be with people. She'll often sit right on the couch beside the child with her head on their lap or she'll sit at their feet." (See my article on:The Cat Who Dialed 911.)

The Ontario facility dog program originally supported people with autism  and veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The dogs are valued at $10,000 each and are provided free of charge to approved clients. This wonderful organization receives no government funding and relies entirely on private donations. To contribute, please visit www.nsd.ca).

Crawford told the press: "It's sort of hard to know how I ever did my work without her. She helps build an instant rapport. Children can walk in and it's an instant conversation starter and allows us to... talk about court preparation."

Kudos to the Canadian courts, the Child Witness Protection Program and Rachel Crawford for putting children and their feelings first.

And of course, the same to sweet Merel.

See also: Bretagne

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