Not all dogs bite
As the 20 or so people in the room are told that two men who have been found guilty of rape in Gauteng have been handed life sentences, a round of spontaneous applause breaks out.
Most of those in the room are parents of children who have been abused or raped. They’re attending monthly court preparation sessions at the Teddy Bear Clinic in Braamfontein, and are grateful for any reason to cheer.
Many of the parents have had to endure months of anxiety, guilt and grief. They’ve hit brick walls with investigating officers and seem to be on a roundabout of court postponements. Last year, 96 of the clinic’s 1 138 new and existing cases were postponed.
The journey to trial is a grinding one that Teddy Bear Clinic staff say can drag on for between two and six years, which means parents and children need sustained support and counselling to put themselves back together.
Still, the Teddy Bear Clinic’s conviction rate last year included six life sentences, 18 imprisonments, three fines and six suspended sentences. Forty-five cases were withdrawn and three suspects were acquitted.
It’s more hit than miss.
The clinic understands that children who’ve suffered profound trauma may respond in unexpected ways, and staff keep trying to find new solutions. Last year, a new one arrived and it’s proving hugely successful.
Therapy dogs from volunteer organisation Top Dogs started working with the Teddy Bear Clinic about 18 months ago. The focus was on letting children relax and de-stress by interacting with the dogs after going through the serious business of becoming accustomed to a courtroom and its procedures.
Conor Hughes of Top Dogs says: “Having the dogs there was a way for the children to relax after a stressful session, and it was very successful because the children related to the dogs immediately. They don’t trust adults, but they trust the dogs because it wasn’t a dog that hurt them.”
Top Dogs volunteers and Teddy Bear Clinic director Dr Shaheda Omar were keen to extend the success of the therapy dogs into the court preparation process, so the Top Dog volunteers underwent training sessions to deepen their grasp of the court process and to understand the children’s needs.
They came up with the idea to make the court prep sessions less stressful by getting the dogs to take up roles as “actors”. The volunteers dressed the dogs up in police uniforms, magistrate’s collars and prosecutor’s gowns for the mock court sessions.
“The children were already used to role play in the mock courtroom, but the dogs are a novelty and it’s something unexpected; so they enjoy that,” says Hughes.
At a Saturday morning session, a dozen children file into the Teddy Bear Clinic’s mock courtroom and take up positions at the judge’s bench, the witness box or as the stenographer, policeman and prosecutor. At their sides are their furry sidekicks, dressed like them.
Omar says: “Having the dogs helps the children identify differently with a policeman, with a judge, a prosecutor. We’ve called this programme Not All Dogs Bite – it’s so children can learn to trust that not all adults are bad. There is method to this madness because, when you stroke a dog or a furry animal, you relax and serotonin is released in your body.”
The dogs put up with it all, sitting quietly through proceedings. Afterwards, they allow the children to pat and cuddle them. The dogs are any breed, size and age.
“We work at hospices, schools and old age homes, but working at the clinic has been quite special. When we started coming here, I thought we’d see the same children for a month or two. Soon we realised we were seeing the same children for months on end because their court cases kept on being postponed,” says Hughes.
But Top Dogs will keep coming back because watching the children relax and fuss over the animals makes it all worthwhile.
The Teddy Bear Clinic court preparation programme was endorsed by the Gauteng courts and has been introduced in North West, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. This is a huge step forward because court preparation is still not mandatory.
Omar says: “The children and the parents realise that, through this process, they are not alone.”
At the Saturday sessions, they have access to lawyers, police officers, psychologists and social workers.
Top Dogs has agreed to work with the Teddy Bear Clinic’s offices in the West Rand to set up a similar canine court prep programme there.
“When a child is composed and informed of the process, they can give a more relaxed testimony,” says Omar.
She’s happy to talk about success stories: in 2015, a 10year-old boy’s rapist was given a life sentence for rape and for infecting him with HIV. Last year, the man who attacked an eight-year-old received four life sentences plus eight years for four counts of rape and kidnapping. In another case, a five-year-old girl was able to give confident, consistent evidence, which put her rapist in jail for life.
“Each of these numbers reflect not just a patient, but a family and a community whose lives have improved through the court preparation process,” says Omar.
The Izwi lami campaign calls for survivors to share their stories of sexual violence by SMSing the word ENDRAPE to 38006. This will also connect them with counselling services
in their province. The SMSes are free
FURRY FRIENDS Therapy dog Peanut waits patiently a for a child at the Teddy Bear Clinic to feel comfortable enough to feed him a treat