A South African charity is helping children who have suffered sexual abuse prepare to testify in court by using a troupe of therapy dogs, dressed as judges, lawyers and other court officials.

In 2015, Top Dogs, an organisation that runs programmes using therapy dogs, teamed up with the Teddy Bear Foundation, a group that provides psychological and legal support to children who have suffered abuse, to start a new, innovative programme: a mock courtroom where dogs play the role of different court officials. The idea is to familiarise children with court proceedings in a fun, non-threatening environment before they are asked to testify against their abusers.

The programme is held on the second Saturday of each month at two places in Johannesburg: Krugersdorp Court and a mock courtroom at the Teddy Bear Foundation. Usually about 80 children take part in the programme each month and a group of 15 canine actors come along to represent the officials.

 

'It’s extremely important for these children to be familiar with a court environment'

Vanessa Garland is a volunteer with Top Dogs. She told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about the sessions.

First, the children are split into small groups, depending on their age. Then, we explain to them how a trial works. When we explain the role of each official and participant in a trial, we introduce them to the dogs, who are dressed up as a judge, a prosecutor, a police officer, a defence lawyer and a witness.

Dogs dressed as court officials and participants in a trial during a court preparation session for children. (Photo: Top Dogs).
 

Then, we hold a mock trial. The dogs go and stand where their character would be in a real courtroom. The children are assigned to different dogs and read a little script tied to their role.

Just like in a real trial, everyone stands when the judge enters and you don’t sit down until the judge has done so. Acting this out allows children to experience the physical experience of being in a courtroom alongside the verbal experience.

Court preparation sessions are held in this mock courtroom within the Teddy Bear Foundation. (Photo: Top Dogs).

Top Dogs and the Teddy Bear Foundation also hold court preparation sessions in Krugersdorp Courtroom in Johannesburg. (Photo: Top Dogs).

Each session ends with free time when children can interact with the dogs. They get to feed them, brush them and get to know them.

It’s really important for these children to become familiar with a courtroom and to understand what is happening, so they're a little less overwhelmed by this big room full of adults on the day of their trial, especially because, in most cases, their abusers are there too. A judge is a lot less scary when you picture him as a labrador!

In the United States and Canada, there are several courthouse dog programmes, where children can be accompanied by an animal during stressful court proceedings. In South Africa, however, dogs are not allowed in the courtroom, so we give each child who has taken part in our programme a stuffed dog wearing the same costume as our Top Dogs that they can take to court with them.

Video courtesy of Top Dogs.