Not all dogs bite

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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

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