Canine Advocacy Program provides comfort for children forced to testify in criminal cases

Imagine, for a moment, having to sit 20 feet away from a person who assaulted or abused you. You are in court, on the witness stand about to testify, and you have to relive that nightmare in excruciating detail while looking at the very person responsible, and do so in a room full of strangers.
 
Now imagine that you are also just four years old.
 
This was the impetus for the Canine Advocacy Program, a child crime victims’ advocacy nonprofit based in Novi and founded by Dan Cojanu in 2010.
 
Cojanu was the supervisor of Victim Services at the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office until the County offered him early retirement in 2008.
 
“I really enjoyed being a victim advocate,” Cojanu says. A coworker had mentioned a program in Florida that used dogs to help kids get through criminal justice system, and Cojanu decided to check it out, visiting different cities with similar programs. “I was stunned by what these dogs were accomplishing with kids who needed to testify. I worked with kids for 38 years, 33 in Oakland County, and I’m really aware of what these kids go through when they need to testify.”  
 
He talked to judges, advocates, and lawyers in Oakland County, and no one had a reason why they couldn’t do the same thing. Thus, the Canine Advocacy Program (CAP) was born.
 
But first they needed the right dog.
 
“You have to come up with some incredibly trained dogs,” Cojanu says. In December 2009, he got a call from Leader Dogs for the Blind: they had the perfect dog for his program, a chocolate brown beauty named Amos. Amos became a “founding member,” and the Canine Advocacy Program was officially in action.
 
Leader Dogs for the Blind have been a huge asset to CAP. They get career change dogs not going into service for one reason or another, and the organization will send Master Trainers to assist with additional training as needed. “Anything we need they provide,” Cojanu says. “They like to see their dogs go into service. If they can’t help a visually impaired person, then they’re helping children.”
 
Prosecutors and judges across the state see the successes CAP has and what a positive influence it is; their expansion has been tremendous and Cojanu can’t get enough dogs to satisfy demand.
 
CAP now has 12 dogs working with children across the state, and another five working with veterans and Veterans Treatment Courts. They will soon expand to the Upper Peninsula with another two dogs. In Oakland County there are now two dogs, Amos and Lance, and Cojanu is their handler.
 
“Our success with kids is phenomenal,” he says. “Our [justice] system is not designed for kids even though it’s best in world. We do a bad job of getting kids through this process. We expect them to do everything an adult does. Having a dog there with them relieves their anxiety going in and sitting 20-25 feet away from someone who did something terrible to them and they’re frightened to death.”
 
Cojanu tells the kids that Amos or Lance is their dog for the day for as long as they’re in court. “[By doing that] we just gave them power in a powerless situation,” he explains. Oakland County employees know exactly what’s going on when they see him walking down the corridor with a child holding Amos’s leash, and they’ll ask the child something like, “Can I pet your dog?” “They light right up!” Cojanu beams. “This provides them with a positive focus in this nightmare they’re going to experience pretty soon.”
 
He has found that kids with advocacy dogs do very well on the stand. “If you get that anxiety down, they’re able to perform. They know when they get down from that stand that big brown furry dog is there waiting for them.”
 
In many cases if the child doesn’t testify, the case doesn’t go forward. Many times a child will get as far as the courthouse before they find themselves unable to testify. In 100 percent of the cases with Amos, all of the kids have testified. Amos has even helped children ages three and four through two preliminary exams each.
 
But, Cojanu says, the goal isn’t ultimately to get the kids to testify. “It is not our focus to get the kids to testify. I want them to because it’s just going to hold the bad guys responsible, but if we can do a little less harm, that’s my goal. I do not want to revictimize these children. The bottom line is we make sure we do a little less harm.”
 
Some Oakland County judges allow the dog inside courtroom, and in district courts across the state the dog is even allowed in the box with the kids. Though, Cojanu says, “It’s not necessarily true that the dog has to be in court for this to be effective. If I can get 30 minutes beforehand I can work with that child and get them ready to go so they can do this.” He has even had kids become so relaxed they fall asleep on Amos.
 
CAP dogs and their handlers stay with the child through the whole process of their court visit, staying with them for awhile after their testimony, going through a kind of debriefing, and even walking them to their cars afterwards. “We make sure they’re taken care of start to finish.”
 
In presentations to law schools and prosecutors associations, Cojanu invites people to challenge him if they can think of a downside to the program. “In five years that hasn’t happened. There is no downside to the program. The child is biggest beneficiary. [The prosecutors get their testimony.] Everybody wins, and it doesn’t cost anyone a nickel.”
 
There isn’t a shred of doubt in Conaju’s voice when he says, definitively, “It works. And I know when I finish the day something positive has happened out of this nightmare.”  
 
The Canine Advocacy Program is currently funded entirely by donations. To support this organization and the work that they do, make a tax-deductible donation through their website here.
 
Follow the adventures of Amos and Lance on Facebook here