A dog named Justice: After a "career change," survivors receive support

September 20, 2018 - Anna Nichols

ike any career woman, when Justice was unqualified for her dream job, she held her head up high, wagged her tail and took the experience as an opportunity to reinvent herself.

When a dog isn’t ideal to become a leader dog for the blind, they get a second chance to help people as a “career-changed dog.” These dogs have the sweet demeanor of a leader dog, some training, and can go on to be service animals for the police or assist in other organizations.

Justice was unable to meet the requirements for ascending and descending stairs, so the MSU Sexual Assault Program (SAP) adopted her from Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

She now spends her nine-to five-greeting clients at the SAP office, offering emotional support and negotiating her way into belly rubs. She also loves peanut butter and carrots.

Since April 20, when Justice first started her new career, individuals who attend therapy sessions can have Justice in the room to sit with or hold onto. SAP therapist Katelyn Maddock, who works with Justice, said having her around has been a game changer for the office.

“It’s intimidating to walk into the sexual assault program — the name isn’t the most subtle thing in the world,” Maddock said. “That nervous energy, that anxiety, people coming in and seeking help for the first time. The second you see this happy, doofy, black lab smiling at you, it really makes what can be a high-strung, anxiety provoking situation (better).”

SAP has come a long way since working out of the basement of the Student Services Building. 

Calming music circulates among couches in the SAP lobby. The friendly face of the receptionist welcomes individuals to the office and coloring books, tea and coffee and other self-care items are available for use. Some people feel comfortable taking naps in this space, which can be rare for victims of sexual assault.

Now the odd dog toy on the floor compliments the room’s ensemble.

Justice was originally suited to be a leader dog because of her calm demeanor. April Dennis, the SAP office supervisor whom Justice lives with, said when Justice first got to the office she was immediately able to sense someone in the office who needed support and she sat with them.

“It’s strange to think of a dog having empathy, but seeing her interact with people, she’ll just walk right up to them or she’ll just go and sit by somebody and knows what’s going on and is really responsive to them,” Maddock said.

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Canine Advocate Justice takes a break after her walk on Sept. 13, 2018. Annie Barker | The State News

CAP

Justice got her assignment to MSU SAP from Canine Advocacy Program (CAP), an organization seeking to provide comfort and support to child victims while they are in the criminal justice system.

CAP Founder and Program Director Daniel Cojanu said he got the idea for the program as he was getting ready to retire from victim advocacy at the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office. Before then, he worked with at-risk children for over 40 years.

The court system is utterly terrifying, Cojanu said, especially for children who are victims of sexual abuse. They are told they have to come to court, talk to a judge and sit 20 feet from someone who hurt them.

Bringing a dog into the mix shifts the child’s focus, Cojanu said. 

“When I meet with a child for the first time at court I tell them ‘As long as you’re here today, this is your dog. You can walk with them, you can cuddle with them, you can draw pictures with them.’ I’ve had kids fall asleep on them,” Cojanu said. “It gives them a sense of power that they didn’t have before.”

Cojanu said individuals around the courthouse know that the child’s sense of ownership of the dog means the world to them. They are instructed to ask the child if they can pet their dog, to encourage a feeling of control for the child.

WHY MSU?

This is the first time CAP has placed a dog with a sexual assault program. However, when SAP expressed interest, Cojanu said he knew it was necessary due the events that transpired at MSU this year. Though the clientele is a bit older, the impact of bringing a happy puppy is the same.

This past year’s sexual assault cases have cast a shadow over MSU in large part due to the actions of ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar. Over the course of his career he sexually assaulted over 400 victims. In January, 156 “sister survivors” gave their impact statements during Nassar’s Ingham County sentencing. Many of the survivors were MSU students and athletes.

Only 20% of instances of rape and sexual assault of female students 18 to 24 years old are reported to the police, according to a special report from the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014. 

“My hat is off to the clinic for stepping up and saying ‘yes, this is something we could use with the students at MSU,’” Cojanu said. “People are really seeing the benefits. We went from just prosecutors’ offices to child advocacy clinics, then domestic violence programs and now sexual assault centers, and it’s a program that is so adaptable.”

A different member of CAP was present during the Ingham County sentencing, Preston, the canine advocate at Small Talk Children’s Assessment Center. 

There are currently 24 dogs placed around the state by CAP.

The Michigan State University Police Department and the Attorney General’s office reached out to the center, so Crisis Counselor Ashley Vance brought Preston with her to court.

Vance said Preston had a few opportunities to start his court work beforehand, but this experience was extensive for him. The courthouse was full and the duo stationed themselves in the hallway outside of Judge Aquilina’s courtroom, waiting to see if anyone might need support from Preston.

“There were a couple people that came up to him (on) multiple days and they were looking for him on the breaks so that was kind of heartwarming to see that he did make a difference for them. They were happy to see when he was coming back each day,” Vance said.

Justice has not yet gone to court. Dennis said that is a goal, but the opportunity has not presented itself yet.

Justice has been great for public outreach, Maddock said. People have reached out for resources from SAP through Justice’s Instagram. 

An inviting ambassador for the program, Justice meets lots of folks on campus on her walks. Maddock said she and Dennis have been able to engage in conversations about what it is that Justice does and the work that goes on at SAP.

“She’s just happy in a space that is generally not happy,” Maddock said. “To have at least one smiling face changes the game.”

Taking his own dog, Lance, to court, Cojanu said he gets to see firsthand the amazing impact well-trained dogs like Justice can have on survivors of sexual abuse. They bring something positive and empowering into situations where individuals have had their sense of security taken from them.

“We’ve got a couple dogs that you just look at them and they flip over on their backs for belly rubs,” Cojanu said.  “We need a little less damage, I guess is the whole point. The criminal justice system, it’s not designed for children or young people. If we can do a little less damage to these kids, that’s kind of the whole goal.”

Justice’s Instagram is @alabcalledjustice. MSU takes donations for Justice’s upkeep through a CAP fund.