Fig Tree Logo

Dog comforts children in abuse interviews and in the courtroom

Scott Coleman is Lucy's handler.  Photo courtesy of Scott Coleman

By Kaye Hult

Lucy, the courthouse facility dog, often greets children and their families when they come to the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) in Coeur d'Alene.

The dog is an important member of the forensic team helping put children at ease for interviews to elicit potential evidence, said Lucy's handler, Scott Coleman, the CAC director. 

"Children and their families come to the center when there is a child abuse case," he said. "The CAC is set up as a comfortable, friendly place, where children and their families feel they are safe, physically and psychologically."

While there, a child can be physically checked, forensic interviewers speak with the family to learn their side of the story, and the child is interviewed with Lucy by their side.  If Lucy is lying down comfortably, it makes it that much easier for a child to feel safe speaking about their experience, he said.

Child advocacy centers were created on the East Coast in the early 1990s out of the desire for interviewers to more fully and accurately learn the story behind child abuse cases.

Initially, children were interviewed, often by adults who asked leading questions, which sometimes resulted in the wrong people being tried and found guilty.

Scott directs a team of three individuals, who are both forensic interviewers and family advocates.

A forensic interview is conducted by someone trained in a court-recognized interview protocol, he said. Interviewers are required to attend a peer review on a regular basis as a means of checks and balances. The CAC does interviews with about 250 families a year.

"When a case is sent to the CAC, team members speak to law enforcement to understand the story from that point of view," he said.

They listen to other evidence, speak with the family and gain clarity about the allegation(s). Then, they create an hypothesis about what happened before meeting with the child.

The interviewer seeks to take a neutral stance, going into the interview with an open mind and asking the child open-ended, non-leading questions. Lucy's relaxed presence helps create a safe place for the children to tell their stories. However, if a child goes into a crisis mode, the interview is terminated.

"The case is investigated with a multi-disciplinary approach," Scott said. "The full team includes law enforcement, health and welfare, someone from the prosecutor's office, pediatricians and some from Juvenile Diversion. They watch the interview in a separate office on video."

If a child has to testify in court, Lucy will accompany the child there.  Having Lucy lying relaxed near the witness box helps the child feel safe enough to share with the court.

"Advocates will meet with the family, offering them tools to improve the family relationships. Abuse can be generational. The team seeks to interrupt a negative, hurtful cycle with appropriate services," Scott explained.

For each client, they offer a follow-up schedule, parenting classes, addiction treatment or housing assistance.

Always, the team members ask, "How can we help this child begin to heal from the abuse?"

The Coeur d'Alene CAC opened in 2012 as the North Idaho Children's Advocacy Center. 

The Sheriff's Department, the Coeur d'Alene Police, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, the county prosecutor and others brought about its establishment. Kootenai Health provides the building.

In 2016, the CAC came under the umbrella of Safe Passage, which deals with domestic violence. It is one of the Safe Passage programs. Safe Passage also offers resiliency programs to assist with housing, court services and shelter. 

It has outreach programs to teach people to prevent domestic and sexual violence. Advocates accompany an injured person to the emergency room for support. They also provide clothes, if an individual's clothes are needed for evidence. The CAC is separate from these programs.

Trying to add more resources, the center has applied for accreditation with the National Children's Alliance. Currently, the center is an associate developing member.

Scott came to CAC in November 2020.

"I grew up in Orange County, Calif., in a Christian home. My grandfather was a Reformed Church pastor. We went to church regularly. Dad would read to us in the Bible every day," he said. "I came to understand the Beatitudes."

Scott studied criminal justice and became a police officer with the Garden Grove Police in 2007. He worked up from patrol, becoming a detective in 2014.

As a detective, he became a hostage negotiator and then a chaplain coordinator.

"I found I had a big heart for people. I learned I am compassionate and empathetic. I like to help people through tough times, such as divorce, shooting, death, trauma or a broken heart.

"Perhaps it came from having a pastor ride in my car once a week," Scott said.

After a few years as a detective, he injured his shoulder and had permanent nerve damage. He was medically retired in 2018. As he tried to determine what would come next, he began to work with his mother, who is an educator, and with another police officer to create a curriculum for K-12 students, to teach them how to respond to violence. That curriculum turned into a business that has trained 100,000 students.

"I missed helping people directly," he said. "I wanted to work with children. They have an innocence about them. More and more, threats are arising toward children in our society. I believe it's important for people to stick up for children."

On a road trip, Scott traveled through Coeur d'Alene about 10 years ago. He thought it would be nice to live there.

When he no longer had ties to Southern California, he began looking for work elsewhere and learned of the CAC opening. 

"I have a unique skill set and life experiences for this work," he said. "It feels like my taking this position was meant to be.

"My background as a cop gives me credibility with the team. That I did forensic interviewing helped, as did time talking with broken-hearted people."

While Scott does not identify as a traditional Christian, he believes concepts of Christianity are beneficial in raising children, such as "Love your neighbor as yourself."

"I try to do this," said Scott.  "Everyone has a different background.  All of us care about our neighbors, especially children," he continued. "Keep them safe, watch out for them. Love families, love children. Live that out."

Last summer, he asked to have a dog to help with forensic interviews and courtroom support. He went to Assistance Dogs Northwest on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where he met two dogs.

"When I met Lucy, that was it," Scott said.

She had started out being trained as a guide dog for the blind but was too friendly.

He and Lucy attended training camp for a week, then a trainer came here for a week.  She is the fourth courthouse facility dog in Idaho.

The way Scott was raised gives him a  foundation that helps him face challenges, he said. 

"If I can bolster the foundation of other children, I will. So will the other members of my team," he said.

For information, call 208-664-3446.

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, April 2023