Evaluating the use of therapy dogs in child abuse investigations: Establishing a research supported program through practitioner-academic partnerships
By Travis W. Conradt, PhD
One issue confronted by child forensic interviewers and investigators is children's reluctance to disclose instances of abuse. Estimates of children's disclosure rates of sexual abuse vary greatly across studies (see London, Bruck, Ceci, & Shuman, 2007; London, Bruck, Wright, & Ceci, 2008 for review), but consensus agreement among researchers is that a meaningful proportion of children do not disclose abuse during an investigative interview (London et al., 2007; Lyon, 2007; Pipe, Orbach, Lamb, & Cederborg, 2007). Failure or reluctance for children to disclose abuse during an interview is problematic because a child's report may represent the only evidence to substantiate the abuse incident. Moreover, when suspicion of abuse is high, the understanding that children can be reluctant to disclose may incite interviewers to use leading or suggestive questioning prompts to “help” reluctant children disclose (London et al., 2008). The use of leading or suggestive questioning techniques increases the risk of eliciting a false disclosure in the event the alleged abuse incident never happened (Bruck, Ceci, & Principe, 2006).
Laws that place limits on the number of investigative interviews exacerbate the challenge for those questioning abused children and place added pressure on obtaining a disclosure. For example, the legal precedent established by judicial circuit chief judge in Brevard County, Florida, limits investigative agencies to one investigative interview for criminal and dependency legal proceedings (Eaton, 1991). The intent of the law is to protect the child from further psychological trauma across repeated interviews and protect the rights of the accused. However, restrictions on interviews may reduce the opportunity for interviewers to establish sufficient rapport and build a supportive relationship with the child, which has been shown to be an important factor in accurate abuse disclosure (Hershkowitz, 2011; Hershkowitz, Lamb, & Katz, 2014). Hence, effective abuse investigations in jurisdictions limited to one interview may hinge on an investigator's ability to build immediate rapport and provide a safe and supportive environment where the child feels comfortable and open to communication.
As a solution to these challenges, Brevard County Sheriff's Office Special Victims Unit Agent Jessie Holton (2015) implemented a novel practice of using a therapy dog throughout the investigate process. The logic is that the presence of the therapy dog provides initial comfort to the child in an unfamiliar situation or environment and reduces anxiety. Also, the handler can use the dog to build rapport, initiate an open-ended dialogue unrelated to the suspected abuse incident, and evaluate children's responses to assess engagement and cognitive abilities prior to conducting an investigative interview. Ultimately, the child will be more comfortable, open to speaking with the interviewer and willing to disclose the abuse incident during the substantive part of the interview. Overall, this process is similar to the best-practice recommendations for rapport building outlined in the Revised National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Investigative Interview Protocol (see Hershkowitz, 2011) with the addition of using the therapy-dog as an intermediary to establishing rapport with the abuse investigation team. However, there is not a standardized procedure or program for deploying therapy animals in the context of child abuse investigations. Also, research is needed to vet the practice and establish empirically informed guidelines for its use.
As part of his therapy dog program, Holton (2015) wanted to develop a standardized procedure that could be widely implemented by other agencies and provide clear evidence of the procedure's effectiveness. In Florida, child abuse investigations involve a multidisciplinary team consisting of different agency partners. Among the partnering agencies, law enforcement was elected to deploy the therapy dogs because the agency already had K-9 programs and did not need to incur the added expense of liability insurance. Agent Holton and his therapy dog (a puggle named Primus) were used as part of a pilot program. In the context of a forensic interview, Holton and Primus would attempt to meet with the interviewing child in the lobby or waiting area prior to the interview. They would then help usher the child to the interview room to meet the forensic interviewer. After the child became settled, the dog and handler would leave the interview setting. During the pilot project, the therapy dog and handler would remain during the interview room only as a last resort and at the approval of the interviewer.
Holton compared disclosure rates from the cases (children 2- to 12-years-old) that included the use of the therapy dog during the pilot program (2013-14) to those that did not (2011-14) to show that the use of the therapy dog increased children's rates of true disclosures. In order to examine true disclosure rates, only cases that included substantive corroborating evidence that an incident of abuse occurred were examined. This is a common methodological approach used in field studies to validate children's disclosures of abuse (Hershkowitz et al., 2014). Findings showed that disclosures were obtained in only 33.7 percent (33 out of 98) of the cases that did not include the use of the therapy dog. In comparison, disclosures were obtained in 81.8 percent (18 out 22) of the similarly featured cases that included the therapy dog team. This preliminary descriptive data provides supportive evidence that implementing therapy dogs during the rapport-building phase of an investigative interview can help children disclose abuse. However, there are obvious caveats to relying on this initial field investigation and further research is needed to establish this procedure.
Currently, Agent Holden has the goal of further implementing his program to other agencies across Florida to perform replication studies. Moreover, he is seeking to form academic partnerships to continually evaluate, update and integrate the therapy dog practice in the investigative process through research. For example, we are beginning to investigate how the inclusion of the therapy dog impacts the dynamics of the investigative interview. Specifically, we are proposing a study that would use the interview transcripts to examine how children's narratives and the interviewer-child didactic relationship are influenced by the presence or absence of the therapy dog during the investigation. Another important direction for future research is to examine how the use of a therapy dog as a rapport building technique compares to, and can be integrated with, best practice recommendations for interviewer rapport building (Hershkowitz, 2011).
Overall, the use of therapy dogs (or pets) to help establish rapport with children during abuse investigations has the potential to be an inventive and promising practice. This is largely to the credit of Agent Jessie Holton for his insight and commitment to research integrated practice. Moreover, this example illustrates the broader importance of research-minded practitioners, academic-practitioner partnerships and having the unified goal of improving specific practices within the legal process.
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Eaton, O.H., Brevard & Seminole County, State of Florida, (1991). Administrative order no. 91- 76-Ci. Titusville: 18th Judicial Circuit.
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