Victims Find a 'Buddy' at the Courthouse

These days, life is carefree for 5-year-old Lexi Lohr. But last year, something terrible happened to her.

"Mr. Chad. He did something bad … He was going to smack me," she recalled.

Mr. Chad is Chad Wiles, Lexi's former babysitter. He was accused of beating her.

To build a case, prosecutors needed Lexi to testify — a scary proposition for any victim of abuse, let alone a young child.

But officials in Carroll County, Md., had just added a new member to their prosecution team who would prove critical to the case: Buddy the therapy dog.

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Buddy, an 11-month-old black lab/Newfoundland mix, was with Lexi while she met with prosecutors in preparation for the trial. For Lexi, it was love at first sight.

Asked if Buddy would make her feel happy when she's sad, she energetically replied, "Yes, he would."

And the reason is simple.

"Because he's a dog! I like dogs! … And I'm gonna marry Buddy!"

Buddy made the judicial system less intimidating for Lexi. She felt more comfortable talking to prosecutors and agreed to testify.

Faced with that prospect, Chad Wiles opted out of a trial and the court convicted him of a child abuse charge.

Prosecutors say Buddy's presence has been an undeniable help in preparing their cases.

"Well, he's had an incredible impact on our ability to interview vulnerable witnesses and victims, especially children," Carroll County state's attorney Jerry F. Barnes said.

"He absolutely has made a difference, in my cases as well as other prosecutors in the office that have used him," Amy Blank Ocampo, an assistant state's attorney in the county, said of the dog.

"We've used him for mostly young witnesses but we've also used him for adults that have gone through very traumatic things," she added.

Ocampo said Buddy helps relax witnesses and gives them something else to focus on while they have to sort through often painful memories.

"Buddy's the only one that doesn't have an agenda," said Joyce Schaum, the director of the Victim Witness Assistance Unit. "His job is to love them unconditionally, and be there for them."

"Some people who have been through horrendous things, they actually smile. He gets a smile from them," Schaum said.

"Just petting him and having him there makes it so much easier for them to talk about what happened."

Schaum adopted Buddy from the Humane Society when he was an 8-week-old puppy. For the past nine months, he has attended obedience training once a week, with daily instruction from Schaum.

Once Buddy's training is completed, prosecutors hope to bring him in to the courtroom, to help victims face the accused.

Dogs like Buddy are helping put traumatized witnesses and victims at ease in about a half-dozen communities across the country, from Maryland to Ohio to Washington state. Some communities require that the dogs receive a certain amount of training and attain certification from one of several organizations to prepare them to work with crime victims.

Organizations such as Courthouse Dogs provide information on how to start similar programs and also recommend certifications for dogs working in a courthouse setting.

Lexi's mom Shannon said Buddy made all the difference in her daughter's abuse case.

"I think he's wonderful," she said. "It really made her a lot more comfortable, she was really a bit scared of people in general right after it happened."

"Watching my, at the time 4-year-old, going on the stand for trial, that's not something that any parent would want to see."

Thanks to Buddy, justice was served. Lexi avoided the witness stand, and is back to being just a kid.

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