JOLIET – Thursday was an important day for the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Will County judiciary and the thousands who will have their cases heard at the Will County Courthouse in the coming years.
“We don’t allow cameras in this courtroom,” Will County Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt said to the audience gathered Thursday afternoon in a fourth-floor courtroom.
But an exception was made for a new group of furry, four-legged members of the county’s justice system.
“It is seldom that I can take this bench and know in advance that something very positive is going to result from what I do in this courtroom,” Schoenstedt said. “This is certainly one of those times.”
Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow then formally introduced a special team of K-9s that will provide assistance and comfort in the courtroom to children who have been sexually abused as well as other crime victims pursuant to Illinois statute.
Sitting calmly in the packed courtroom were two English Labrador retrievers, named Kiwi and Angus, and two yellow Labrador retrievers, named Jackson and Malley.
Therapy dog program begins
In February 2012, Glasgow was speaking with administrative assistant Cheri Johnson, who has been training dogs for about 10 years with her husband. Glasgow had read about therapy dogs quickening patient healing times in hospitals, and took note of medical research and data that support it.
Jackson, one of Johnson’s dogs, was training to be a lead dog for the blind, but took off every time he saw a squirrel. He was converted to a therapy dog.
Jackson has since been used in the Will County Child Advocacy Center, where results were seen right away. He helped lift the stress off parents, as well as young children who were traumatized.
One such instance Glasgow shared was when a young, abused girl played with Jackson the whole time they were together. But she was not yet ready to speak about what happened.
“About a week later, she tells her mom, ‘Mom, I’d like to go back and play with Jackson and tell what happened to me,’ ” Glasgow recalled, adding that if Jackson never does another thing, it’s still one sexual predator caught that wouldn’t have been without the girl’s interaction with Jackson the dog.
In 2013, Johnson had a second dog, Malley, certified to work in the Child Advocacy Center. They began to consider expanding the program in 2015 when Glasgow heard Illinois soon would allow use of facility dogs in court. A conference in Washington led the state’s attorney’s office to Support Dogs Inc. a nonprofit based in St. Louis that helps agencies acquire dogs – which can cost as much as $30,000 – for free.
The office sent Johnson and Jeff Brown to meet and go through the organization’s required training
program and ensure the dog would take to its potential new handlers. The dog doesn’t always take to its handlers, Glasgow said. But they returned with Kiwi, which will live with Brown.
One of the requirements of the statute is that an accredited agency must train the dog so there won’t be a violation of a defendant’s due process during the trial.
In August, the State’s Attorney’s Office was granted a second dog from Support Dogs, Angus, who will work in the specialty courts. These include the courts for veterans, drugs, mental health and adult redeploy.
Schoenstedt also formally entered an administrative order establishing the protocols for using therapy dogs in Will County courtrooms. The dogs also might help the developmentally disabled testify.
The therapy dogs, according to law, cannot be seen by the jury.
“We wouldn’t want a verdict because the jury liked the dog,” Glasgow said.
The dogs will be out of sight but close enough for the child to pet when giving testimony. Kiwi is the most docile of the four, Glasgow said, making her a perfect fit for the role.