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Courtroom canine provides comfort to child witnesses

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    Ottawa County Prosecuting Attorney James VanEerten pets public facility dog Helen.

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    Ottawa County public facility dog Helen.

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    Ottawa County Prosecuting Attorney James VanEerten and and public facility dog Helen.

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    Ottawa County Prosecuting Attorney James VanEerten speaks on the phone as public facility dog Helen rests under his desk.

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    Ottawa County Prosecuting Attorney James VanEerten and Dorry Rimboch, Director of the Victim Assistance program, with public facility dog Helen.

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PORT CLINTON — There is a new friendly face in the Ottawa County Courthouse, and this one is furry.

Helen, a 2-year-old golden retriever, is a public facility dog whose sole mission is to provide comfort and emotional support to crime victims, witnesses, and others in the justice system. Prosecutor James VanEerten brought her to the county in May and she’s been changing the atmosphere in the courthouse ever since.

“We tend to see people at the worst time of their lives,” Mr. VanEerten said. “Helen gives them something positive to look forward to.”

The new prosecutor encountered such dogs in Marion and Summit counties while working as a private attorney and was impressed by the calming effect they had in court proceedings. Though they can work with anyone, the dogs are particularly beneficial for children.

“Any time you have children involved, the justice system isn’t all that forgiving or a kind system for them,” Mr. VanEerten said. “It can be a pretty fearful experience for them, creating a lot of anxiety, and they don’t really look at coming here as a positive experience.”

That’s where Helen comes in. She can work with victims going through stressful forensic interviews with police, during pretrial conferences and hearings, as well as in the courtroom itself.

“She can take the witness stand with victims at trial,” Mr. VanEerten said. “She’ll lay at their feet, or put her paws in their lap, and they can pet her.”

VIDEO: Ottawa Co. public facility dog Helen

Mr. VanEerten and Dorry Rimboch, director of victims assistance, are Helen’s handlers. Helen has already helped a number of young children and teenagers.

“Sometimes they’re very reluctant to start speaking, but once they get their hands on her they can kind of focus on her, less on the intensity and negativity in the courtroom,” Mrs. Rimboch said. “She’s definitely a calming comfort in the courtroom.”

With Helen by their sides, children — and others — are more verbal and better able to express themselves despite their difficult situations and emotional turmoil.

“The testimony tends to be more clear and more focused,” Mr. VanEerten said.

There are about 10 public facility dogs in Ohio. Helen is the first in northwest Ohio, though Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates is also in the process of obtaining a dedicated courthouse canine. Anna, a comfort dog with Trinity Lutheran Church in South Toledo, has been used many times since her first appearance in the court last year with two sexual assault victims of father-son duo Timothy and Esten Ciboro.

“It was dramatic from the very first minute, the way the children were with the dog in the office and in the courtroom,” Ms. Bates said. “It’s just been incredible, the effect she’s had.”

Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, through which Anna came, is on board to supply a comfort dog assigned solely to the Lucas County justice system. A deputy sheriff that works in the courthouse will be the dog’s primary handler, and others have applied to be co-handlers.

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Ottawa County Prosecuting Attorney James VanEerten and Dorry Rimboch, Director of the Victim Assistance program, with public facility dog Helen.

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Ms. Bates said the arrangement will place the entire cost of the dog and its care on the nonprofit, meaning Lucas County won’t pay a cent. Though the nonprofit is faith-based, the dog’s work will be strictly secular.

Helen came from Marysville-based Freedom Paws Assistance Dogs. While public facility dogs can cost $20,000 or more, Mr. VanEerten worked out an agreement with the organization to obtain the dog for less than $5,000. Oak Harbor Veterinary Hospital has donated all veterinary care for Helen, and Mr. VanEerten and Mrs. Rimboch donate her food, toys, and other needs.

“There’s no ongoing costs for the county,” Mr. VanEerten said.

Helen is available to law enforcement and other local courts as needed. When not actively working with victims, she roams the prosecutor’s office and frequently visits other offices and courtrooms. Her presence has had a notable effect on the courthouse.

“She definitely helps with staff morale, too,” Mr. VanEerten said. “She’s not lacking for attention.”

Judge Bruce Winters of Ottawa County Common Pleas Court said Helen “lightens the room” and keeps people calmer.

“Nobody likes coming to court, but it certainly is a different element to have a dog present,” the judge said. “It just takes the edge off the whole being-in-court experience. Everyone is always happy to see her.”

Judge Winters himself is fairly enamored with the sweet-tempered, well-behaved golden retriever.

“We both happen to enjoy mozzarella cheese sticks,” he joked. “She knows where they’re kept.”

Helen’s use in court has yet to be challenged, Mr. VanEerten said, but recent case law is clear that the dogs should be allowed and do not influence juries.

“It’s not much different than a child bringing a teddy bear on the stand, which has been allowed for years,” he said. “Providing for victims is a big part of our job here, and every service we can provide, we want to.”

Mrs. Rimboch said other facilities shouldn’t hesitate to get a dog like Helen if someone is able to take on the task.

“It’s a lot of work, but I can’t think of one negative,” she said. “It’s all been positive. There’s no reason not to try it if you can.”

Contact Alexandra Mester amester@theblade.com419-724-6066, or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.

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