New courthouse dog providing support for Montgomery victims - Montgomery Alabama news.

New courthouse dog providing support for Montgomery victims

Willow (Source: WSFA 12 News) Willow (Source: WSFA 12 News)

A new staff member in the criminal justice system in Montgomery County is proving to be a huge asset in investigations and in the courtroom, helping victims open up about what happened to them. 

Her name is Willow and her is a two-year-old Labrador/Retriever mix. She was bred and raised by Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit organization that trains and provides assistance dogs. Her skills and disposition have made the professionally trained facility dog the perfect fit to work with victims at the One Place Family Justice Center- a victim advocacy center in Montgomery.

"There's a lot of research out there now dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and dealing with crime victims that pets and animals get them to start talking, get them to start engaging again and that's why she's such an important part of the Family Justice Center," said Steve Searcy, the center's executive director. 

For victims, young and old alike, rehashing what happened to them is difficult, especially in front of strangers and even their alleged attackers.

Willow helps victims and witnesses through every stage of the criminal justice system, as they talk to investigators and prosecutors in interviews and then as they head to grand jury proceedings and into the courtroom to testify at trial.

"In the victims that we've seen her work with so far, it's made a big difference in the way that they have felt about themselves, the way that they've perceived the process that they're having to go through," said Willow's handler, Tamara Martin. "She can accompany them to the witness stand for trial testimony and just to provide comfort, just to love them unconditionally and just to be there and support them and encourage them."

Willow busy schedule is shedding light on violence and abuse across the River Region.

The One Place Family Justice Center is averaging 100 victims a month. So far this year, the center has worked with more than 500 victims from seven counties on domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, child abuse and stalking cases. 

In 2013, the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office prosecuted 176 felony and misdemeanor domestic violence cases. So far in 2014, they've handled 71 domestic violence cases, 11 sexual assault cases, 45 child cases (physical, sexual, and general child victim), and 23 elder abuse cases (financial). 

Now, those victims can have a friend at their side at the courthouse.

"Willow is a great asset to child victims and even adult victims. Willow is a companion to them when they go to court. She can ease their mind and take their mind off of the arduous task that they're about to undergo in testifying in court. It helps them relax, it gives them a friend that they're comfortable with when they're having to tell the horrible things that have happened to them in court," said Montgomery County District Attorney. "When they have a companion like Willow, it empowers them and gives them the confidence to go in there and tell their story."

Willow has made such great strides with elder abuse victims that she's inspired a local retired veterinarian to get involved with the Justice Center, connecting seniors to other pets available for adoption. 

Willow is currently the only courthouse dog working in the state of Alabama.

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