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Support for child witnesses: From dogs to “court school”

February 2, 2022

By Dimarie Alicea-Lozada

Witnesses, especially children, in criminal cases can be intimidated by the court process. They are fearful of testifying in front of a judge, all the attendees of court and the accused person. Child victims and child witnesses have rights enumerated in law that protect them. For example, as of 2009, 46 states and three United States territories (Guam, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico) allow for the use of closed-circuit television or other alternative means for a child to testify without appearing in court.  Some courts have developed other ways to minimize the trauma that the experience can cause.

Therapy dogs have been in use in courts. Previously, Trending Topics’ "From the doghouse to the courthouse" discussed animals that are trained to support those who testify in court in certain circumstances in over 40 states.

The Office of Victims of Crime provides a website of resources, many specifically for children.  State courts have started their own programs to help children understand the court process before having to appear in court. Philadelphia’s program prepares children to testify. Court School is available for children between the ages of 4-16 and assisted by a coordinator trained in child abuse.  The kids are taken to an empty courtroom and they even “practice being sworn in, using the microphone and answering questions, not tied to their case.” They also explain some court language. This provides a known space so it will not be as scary and unfamiliar on the actual day of court.

The 16th Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri provides an instructional web page on how to prepare a child to testify. The instructions are intended to give parents and custodians steps that they can take to prepare a child to testify to reduce the child’s stress. It includes information on what will happen on the court date and the role of the court.

What services are your courts providing to help child victims or witnesses? Share it with us Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164. Follow NCSC on FacebookTwitterInstagram, LinkedIn, or Vimeo .