Family pet becomes metro courtroom’s first dog for young witnesses needing support

PLATTE CITY, Mo. -- On a recent afternoon in the Platte County Courthouse, a teen collapsed in tears outside a courtroom.

She had just shared her difficult allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of a former family friend. As the tears flowed, she was surrounded by family, friends, and Rasta.

The specially trained therapy dog sensed her sadness and moved into comfort her. Moments before, he had been at her side in the witness box as she told her story. Earlier, he had been there for her 11-year-old sister who is the alleged victim in the case and who also had to testify.

"Having his presence, petting him, he laid his head on her knee while she was testifying", said Jennifer Vernon, the golden retriever's handler and owner. "She said it was a distraction but it was a good distraction."

Rasta is a certified therapy dog who's been hanging around the courthouse for several months, a partnership between Synergy Services and Platte County prosecutors who have seen the need to help young victims in interviews and in testimony.

Rasta

"I'm a dog lover myself," said Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd, who said his own experience with his dog Duke led him to seek help from Synergy Services.

"This ought to be a search for the truth," Zahnd says. "And what we have found is that the dog helps the children testify truthfully about some really terrible things."

Zahnd believes the use of Rasta in the recent case is a first in the metro area, though the use of dogs in courtrooms is growing. The Courthouse Dogs Foundation, which supports the use of assistance dogs nationwide, said what began in Seattle in 2004, has now grown to 39 states and nearly 200 courthouse dogs.

Rasta is technically a therapy dog. Assistance dogs go through different training and certification, with specific “best practices” outlined by the Courthouse Dogs Foundation.

Synergy Services believes Rasta was a natural choice, however, given his work with its clients, and Synergy’s longstanding relationship with the Platte County Circuit Courts.

Kansas and Missouri are among states where they've been used in courtrooms, but the recent case appears to be the first in the Kansas City metro.

The defense attorneys in this case did not object, but some do raise concerns about prejudicing the jury.

Jurors may feel more sympathy to children relying on the dogs, or they may be distracted and confused, even though they are instructed not to place any weight on the use of the animals in judging the testimony's credibility.

In the Platte County case, the jury actually failed to reach a verdict and the defendant, accused of sexually abusing one of the young girls, will be retried.

But Zahnd said he hopes to continue using therapy dogs and said Rasta may need some back-up if they get busy.

"I've seen what those dogs can do to help kids," he said. "It's unbelievable."

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