By Dina Fantegrossi
"Testifying in court is a frightening experience for any human. The terror multiplies when it is a young child who must bravely face their abuser and answer questions about the pain they have suffered. One Florida based non-profit group has found a way to comfort young victims and provide a bit of much needed encouragement.
The Orange County K-9th Circuit Program utilizes therapy dogs for the specific purpose of aiding children through the difficult task of testifying in front of strangers in the overwhelming environment of a courtroom. Far too many predators have walked free because their young victims were unable to tell their painfully personal stories.
That's where dogs like Karl come in. Karl the Boxer is 65 pounds of laid-back dog mush. He was born deaf, so banging gavels, shouting lawyers and sobbing victims do not bother him one bit. Karl even wears a floppy blue hat when he meets the children to put them at ease. His goofy appearance brings a smile to even the most anxious young faces.
Most people in the courtroom will never even know that Karl is there. Before a jury is brought in, the child has already walked down the center aisle clutching Karl's leash in his or her hand. Once seated on the stand, Karl curls up reassuringly at their feet - a sturdy but stoic presence to boost their confidence.
Karl's owner and trainer Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse says that the simple presence of a pup in the courtroom can mean the difference between a conviction and an acquittal when a child is the star witness. She told Florida's Bay News 9:
"Most of them won't testify, won't go through a deposition, if they don't have a dog beside them."
A child once asked Hart-Rittenhouse the heartbreaking question, "If he (the defendant) comes over and tries to hurt me, will Karl protect me?" Although Karl is not trained in this capacity, Hart-Rittenhouse assured the child that he would leap to her rescue in order to ease her mind.
Karl's actual role during the trails is far more straightforward - he is simply there. His size gives them a sense of security and his calm, relaxed demeanor seems to rub off on them. As they answer questions, they can stroke Karl's soft white fur with their feet - he's out of sight, but certainly not out of mind for the victims.
Hart-Rittenhouse remains in the courtroom each time Karl is called to help a child. She has heard testimony of cruelty, neglect and abuse most of us cannot even imagine. She endures it because she believes strongly in the service she is providing. So much so that after the verdict is rendered, Karl and Hart-Rittenhouse do not simply disappear from the brave young witnesses' lives. They often continue to visit with the kids, further aiding in the healing process.
"We'll be there as long as the child wants Karl to stay in their life. He's helped a lot of children."
Karl is one of six therapy dogs currently working in the K-9th Circuit Program. Each dog and their handlers are TDI certified members of Companions for Courage, currently the only provider approved to work in Orange County's Ninth Circuit."
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