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L.A. Prosecutors Take Note of Santa Barbara County DA’s Therapy Dog

Malvern, a 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix, helps vulnerable victims and witnesses through court processes

When a 6-year-old Santa Barbara girl entered the courtroom earlier this summer to give her testimony in a case that would require her to face the man who molested her just a year earlier, she had a very special friend with her.

After taking the stand, she sat down with Malvern, a 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix, laying at her feet.

Officials with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office say having the dog with her in court, most likely one of the hardest moments of her life, helped her get through it.

Thanks to her testimony and that of another young woman who was abused, the defendant in their case is scheduled to be sentenced to 135 years to life in prison next month.

Since starting with the office last August, Malvern’s presence with some of the system’s most vulnerable victims has been a huge success, according to officials.

He is a trained therapy dog, and went through intensive training at Canine Companions for Independence in Oceanside to learn to provide comfort to victims and witnesses with psychological, physical or emotional trauma whose cases are being processed by the District Attorney’s Office.

He is owned by Donna Crawford, a volunteer attorney in Dudley’s office, who spent two weeks in Oceanside at her own expense learning how to work with Malvern, and who also pays for all the costs for his care and upkeep.

“Malvern is a love,” District Attorney Joyce Dudley said Wednesday. “He has given comfort to victims in a way no human could, and in so doing he has made all the difference.”

With Malvern in the courtroom, he gives the victims “something to focus on,” Crawford said.

The program has been so successful that other law enforcement agencies are taking notice.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is exploring a program of its own, and four of the office’s trial attorneys — Lisa Tanner, Deborah Kass, Gina Satriano and Deborah Knaan -— came to Santa Barbara on Wednesday to meet Malvern and talk with Crawford about what has worked here.

The office learned about Malvern through news articles and contacted Dudley, said Kass, special assistant with the Bureau of Central Operations at the District Attorney’s Office.

Although the attorneys who came up to meet Malvern work in different locations across L.A., they are all trial lawyers and have seen firsthand how a dog like Malvern could help them interact with victims.

A dog can “provide a calming, judgment free presence,” said Satriano, director of the DA’s Bureau of Central Operations. “When you have a child on the stand, facing their accuser, surrounded by adults, they don’t know. ... It’s helpful.”

Satriano said that the law changing to allow for supporters of the witness to accompany them to court when they testify was an important decision. 

“This is another outreach of that,” she said. “If the child is open to that connection, that can only help them get through that process.”

The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office is expansive, but the idea would be to start with one dog if the group can get the approval.

Tanner, who handles many cases of sexual abuse, said her office in Van Nuys handles up to 10 interviews a week, each of which lasts one to three hours.

“And that’s just at one office,” Satriano said, adding that there 28 courts total in the system.

With two child-advocacy centers for victims of sexual crime, a victim-impact program, as well as other programs where a dog like Malvern could be helpful, the office is also looking at using a dog in situations such as alternative sentencing for people with mental-health issues, where a dog could lower the stress in an otherwise tense courtroom.

That transformation Malvern helps bring just by being his friendly self is something Dudley has seen in the courtroom and also in the lives of individual victims.

“He has helped victims become survivors, and has given them a voice so that we could seek justice,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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