May-June 2010

Paw and order

The Harris County DA’s Office had a “crazy” idea: having dogs visit the offices to comfort and calm crime victims and their families. It’s been a huge, tail-wagging hit.

Jennifer Varela, LCSW

Director of Family Violence Services in the District Attorney’s Office in Harris County

My job as a social worker with the Family Criminal Law Division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is dynamic and interesting—just when I think I’ve seen or heard it all, something new surprises me.

    Belinda Smith, chief of our Animal Cruelty Section and chair of the Houston Bar Association’s Animal Law Section, proposed that we meet with some folks from a local animal volunteer group. They bring their own animals to visit people in hospitals and nursing homes. I had heard of “animal therapy” and its positive effects on people who have experienced trauma. I thought it sounded interesting, but I had some reservations. Like most public agencies, we’re already stretched beyond capacity and I didn’t want to dilute our services. I don’t like to stray too far afield of our primary mission, which is increasing victim safety via proper handling of domestic violence cases and filing protective orders.

    Belinda and South Texas College of Law Professor Fran Ortiz made the formal presentation to District Attorney Patricia Lykos. During the entire presentation, one of the volunteer dogs was in the judge’s lap, and she was petting it, so we hoped that she would approve the program.

    It was decided that we’d propose the idea to the divisions in our office that have a lot of contact with victims: Crimes Against Children, Victim Rights, and Family Criminal Law, where I am assigned. Of these three departments, it seems like we have the most in-person complainant contact. Our staff serves about 7,500 people in person, each year, and we can pretty much guarantee a waiting room full of people on any given morning. Because many of these people bring kids, we always stock toys, books, movies, and video games to entertain them while we meet with their parents. We thought that the dogs could interact with the kids while we met with their moms or dads.


We met with members of the animal volunteer group, and we brainstormed about how the animal visits would work. We decided that the dogs should be medium-sized (around 40 pounds or smaller) and that six human volunteers would visit on the first and third Tuesdays of each month for a one-hour visit each time. We also had to arrange for parking, a meeting place, building security, and a place for the dogs to “do their business.” (To that end, we designated some strips of grass around the courthouse, and the owners carry plastic bags to clean up after their dogs.)

    The Houston Bar Association got a sponsor to purchase some colorful bandanas for the children who participated in the program. One of our clever legal interns, Joseph Herbster, was kind enough to draft some policies for the program, which included details about when and where visits would occur, confidentiality, and volunteer and facility requirements. Everyone agreed that volunteers would have to pass a background check, so we came up with an application, and one of our investigators performed the checks. The dogs go through their own background testing to ensure the animals are calm and will not act aggressively.

    The human volunteers were used to working in medical settings, so they already understood the idea of confidentiality; we asked them to sign a confidentially agreement, which they did without hesitation.

    Most everyone was interested in the program, but we did get some negative response. One defense attorney suggested that we might be influencing witnesses too much, but in my thinking, having canine visitors was no different than showing a movie in our waiting room or providing magazines for people to read while they wait. It is just a way to lessen the stress of a difficult situation. Besides, most of people who would be visiting with the dogs would likely never testify.

And … action!

We had already arranged with our building security that the volunteers and dogs would be allowed to come in a back, secured entrance. The first couple of visits were met with a lot of fanfare: Lots of people from around the office came to see the dogs too.

    One of the visiting dogs looks and acts very much like Benji from the movies of the 1970s. His owner gets him to do lots of tricks, which thrills the kids—and the adults. Even children who are afraid of dogs love petting a sweet little long-haired chihuahua that visits. Both he and his owner are exceptionally cam.

    Not only did the dogs meet and cheer up kids, but they met and cheered up adult victims too. We also found that they helped us: We have been called “the ER of social work” because we deal with crisis and trauma all day, so spending 10 or 15 minutes petting and loving on the dogs will drop our blood pressure and reduce stress like almost nothing else.

    Another very positive outgrowth of this program is that the Chief of our Crimes Against Children Division, Denise Oncken, has been collaborating with our local Children’s Assessment Center (CAC) to have the dogs come there. Because we discovered that six dogs is a lot for our small area, we decided to split up the group. Three volunteers and dogs will come to the DA’s Office and three will go to the CAC. They’ll switch sites so their volunteers get to visit different places.

    We have tried to design the program in such a way that it doesn’t take away from our main purpose. We have found that hasn’t happened. Because we took the time to plan and evaluate the program in the beginning, we have found that it is a real benefit. It makes our complainants feel a little less stressed and it does the same for us too.