Courthouse companion provides comfort to victims, witnesses
There is a new top dog in the Lehigh County Courthouse and her name is Ramona.
District Attorney Jim Martin announced the addition of the courthouse companion dog, Ramona, July 27 during a news conference in the county courthouse, Allentown.
“Ramona is the newest member of my staff,” Martin said. “Courthouse companion dogs provide emotional or comfort support to victims of crime when dealing with stressors of the judicial system.”
Ramona arrived at the courthouse the day before and will be working in conjunction with the Victim-Witness Program.
“Ramona will be available to victims and witnesses who wish to interact with her as they go through interviews and testifying,” Martin said. “She will be utilized for victims and witnesses of all ages in many different types of cases.”
Cases in which Ramona will be used include assault, child abuse, sexual assault and homicide cases.
Courthouse companion dogs can be instrumental in helping children or elderly people deal with the judicial process.
“Research supports that for some people, contact with an animal can significantly reduce stress and anxiety,” Martin said.
Judges and office staff have been alerted to Ramona’s presence at the courthouse.
“If we find there will be a particular case where Ramona would be helpful to have in court we would solicit the judge’s permission before we were to bring her into the court,” Martin said.
Ramona comes from Canine Partners for Life in Chester County.
Darlene Sullivan, executive director and founder of Canine Partners for Life, provided information.
“Canine Partners for Life is a nonprofit organization and we primarily train service dogs to assist individuals who have mobility limitations, [such as] people who have trouble using their hands and arms and people who have medical conditions like diabetes, epilepsy and cardiac conditions,” Sullivan said.
In addition to training for mobility limitations, Canine Partners for Life also notices special characteristics in their service dogs that could benefit other companion jobs.
“There are times when we have dogs go through our service dog program we feel would be really beneficial to serve as companion dogs either to children who have autism, or maybe residential facilities, group homes and retirement communities,” Sullivan said.
“[And] then there are those very special placements which are our courthouse companion dogs.”
Ramona is a 2-year-old black Labrador retriever and was in the Canine Partners for Life training program for two years.
She was selected for the courthouse placement in large part due to her personality, along with her small size.
While her size would make it difficult for her to fulfill the role of a service dog and reach tall counters and elevator buttons, it makes her a good candidate for a courthouse companion dog.
“She’s rather petite for one of our dogs and that makes it nice when you’re trying to tuck her behind a witness stand or fit her into a crowded interview room,” Sullivan said.
Her spunky and empathetic personality also made her a likely candidate for a courthouse companion dog.
“She has a really pleasant personality, Sullivan said. “She is very sensitive to how people are feeling but at the same time doesn’t seem to become nervous when she feels people’s anxiety, [but] instead seems to want to reach out and support the person and help make them feel better.”
Sullivan noted a personality like Ramona’s is important in being a courthouse companion dog.
“She also seems to love anybody who seems to love her. If you smile at her [Ramona], her tail starts wagging and that’s just a really important characteristic,” Sullivan said.
Canine Partners for Life has courthouse dogs placed in Center County and currently has a courthouse companion dog in Montgomery County.
Ramona will be under the supervision of Victim-Witness Coordinator Kim Silvestri. She will live with Silvestri and will primarily stay in Silvestri’s office during the work day when she isn’t interacting with victims.
Silvestri along with two other district attorney office staff members have gone through four training sessions and an orientation at the Canine Partners for Life location in Cochranville to learn about obedience skills, feeding, grooming and health care when taking care of a dog.
“While she’s an excellent working dog here, she’s also a dog at home that we have to take care of,” Silvestri said.
Canine Partners for Life requires one of the trained staff must be present whenever Ramona is working. Ongoing training and classes will also be required throughout Ramona’s placement.
While Ramona had only been in the office for a day at the time of the news conference, she was able to work July 26 in the courthouse.
“She got to work with a witness and we also got to take her into some courtrooms and practice with that,” Silvestri said.
Silvestri wants Ramona to further support and provide comfort to victims and witnesses.
“No matter how skilled we all are or friendly or nice, it’s traumatic sometimes for people to come in here and retell their stories. There’s that special bond that some people have with animals and we’re hoping Ramona can add to that,” Silvestri said.
Martin, who expressed gratitude toward Sullivan and Canine Partners for Life, said his office gave a donation to the organization.
“That donation came from forfeiture funds, not county taxpayer money,” Martin said.
“This was done and paid for by forfeiture money we acquired through criminals who commit crimes.
“No taxpayer dollars have been involved in either the donation or the things we need to care for Ramona,” Martin said.
District Attorney’s Office Executive Aide Megan Wieand told The Press via email Aug. 1 the amount of the donation was $600.
While Ramona has had service training, she is not a Therapy Dog.
Her job is to build trust and rapport with victims or witnesses, especially in the early preparation during the judicial process.
“That will probably be one of the primary focuses and when those child victims and elderly victims or anybody else who might derive comfort from the presence of Ramona come into the office for preparation for trial or pretrial hearings we’ll introduce Ramona to them,” Martin said.
“If they choose to have a relationship with her, we’ll promote that and have them get the benefit of her comfort.”