Here for you: the CAC and HERO Facility Dog program

by Martha Smith
When many of you were growing up, there wasn’t a place for you to go if you or someone you knew was suffering from abuse, of any sort. Back then, as my mother can attest to, most of the advocacy was left up to the child themselves, and the cases that actually resulted in the child(ren) being removed from that situation were slim to none. In some cases, they were placed with family members who were the victims themselves of the abusive cycle or the perpetrators of the abuse.

My mother lived on a suburb street lined with houses she ran to for help, and on more than one occasion, she was brought back to her own door stoop and told on to her abusers. This same process was repeated when she appealed to a teacher for help, even though she was sent to school covered in bruises. The norm in society, back then, was that you just didn’t talk about it – not ever, and it’s still that way today. The true enemies are ignorance, complicity, shame, silence, fear and doubt.

One of her first memories is being thrown across the living room because she couldn’t get her pants on quickly enough to suit her mother. The fall broke her arm. She was two years old.
I’ve heard my mother say, multiple times, “When I was little, she [her mother] would scream at me that one day she was going to send me to a place where they kept people like me. I remember wishing she would hurry up and send me there; I used to daydream about it.” Mom was eight years old.

It wasn’t until my mother was 16 years old that she was able to protect herself from the abuse her mother and stepfather inflicted upon her, and perhaps because of her age, this may be why the right person finally listened and removed her and her younger sister from the home, but the relief was short-lived. They were sent to live with their birth father, where the abuse worsened and continued in other ways.

But let’s imagine, just for a second, that the very first time my mother went to someone for help, they actually listened. What would the process have been like for her? For you? What would the process be like today?

You can count on one hand the number of years that Jackson County has had its very own Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC). In Mom’s time, this wasn’t even a blip on the radar, which means, that unlike today, she would have to sit through countless forensic exams and interviews with each agency investigating and representing her case. Unlike today, she would have to repeat the disclosures over and over, reliving them, alone, each time with a different stranger. No one to comfort her. No one, familiar person to be with her every step of the way. No one, familiar face who had been with her from the beginning, reassuring her across a police station, in a social worker’s office, at the doctor or hospital, in a courtroom, or providing therapy for her and the rest of her non-offending family members.

Someone once asked me what was the first thing I would do if I had a time machine, and I said I would go back to 1956 Memphis in the middle of the night during an ice storm, and I would find a fenced back yard with a little girl, bare foot, dressed only in her underwear, trying to throw her sheets over the clothes line from where she wet the bed and was locked out. I would have wrapped my mother in a quilt and taken her away and brought her to the people and furry friends who can heal her mind, comfort her heart and fix her life.

Those people and furry friends exist today in the Jackson County CAC and the HERO Dog Program.

The CAC, a 501(c)3 non-profit, funded through an 80/20 Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), is a safe space where a licensed forensic interviewer can sit one-on-one with the victim, and listen to their disclosure while being surveilled by the essential agencies investigating and/or prosecuting the case. In this way, the child only has to relive the traumatic event(s) once. The CAC, through Crisis Services of North Alabama (CSNA), also provides medical exams to look for evidence of sexual or physical abuse while ensuring the safety and well-being of the child. They also provide free counseling to children in Jackson County who have a history of trauma or abuse. Referrals can be made by the Department of Human Resources (DHR), law enforcement, school counselors and doctor’s offices as well as by the non-offending caregiver.

Last year alone, the CAC provided 864 services to children who were abused. For the first quarter of 2021, the CAC has provided 280 services, serving 69 abused children so far – just this year and just in Jackson County. This includes 197 therapy sessions, 14 forensic interviews and 69 victim advocate contacts.

This process, from the first call, to until the case is resolved, is harrowing, especially for a child. This is where Wilson comes in. Who is Wilson? He’s a trained Certified Facility Dog with the HERO Dog Program, (a 501(c)3 non-profit), and he is based in Madison County’s CAC and assigned to Jackson County. The HERO Program is executed by the Office of Prosecution Services and also funded by a grant through VOCA which is through ADECA.

Completely unlike a therapy dog, Wilson’s Service Dog training took two years, and after it was agreed that his personality and temperament were perfect for the job, he was certified to be a Facility HERO. All Facility Dogs are trained through the Assistance Dog Organization (ADO) which is nationally accredited through Assistance Dog International (ADI). Anything a Service Dog knows, the Facility Dogs know as well. They are trained to pick up on stress signals, and through the grant, must work a minimum of 20 hours a week.

While Wilson, like the other Facility Dogs, knows 40 commands and a lot of tricks to put children, and others, at ease, like shake, give five, paint, turn pages of a book, his best talent is picking up on the emotions of the people around him and providing them reassurance, peace, comfort and unconditional love.

Imagine being a child at the CAC. You’ve just had your entire world turned upside down, and now you’re in a room, and you have to talk about what happened to you. In walks this Facility Dog who introduces himself politely and doesn’t leave your side, from start to finish. Or imagine that CSNA has sent you to a doctor or to the hospital for a physical forensic exam of your body, and there’s Wilson’s leash in your hand throughout the entire process, and there, as close to the side of the bed as he can get, is Wilson’s undivided attention, attuned to you, there for you and only you.
Alabama’s 10 other Facility Dogs like Wilson don’t see just children; they see adults for all kinds of reasons. Domestic violence victims or victims of elder abuse can sit through an interview or take the witness stand in a courtroom with Wilson beside them, quietly laying his head on their knee or lying across their feet. The interesting thing about these dogs is that the more stressed, afraid or traumatized you are, the more they will be drawn to you; you become their priority.

Facility Dog Director and HERO Willow’s handler Tamara Martin stated, “I’ve seen children at the CAC who wouldn’t make eye contact or speak at all, but as soon as they met Willow, they immediately changed. One child victim was at the CAC, and it was time to give her disclosure. She requested that we take Willow out because she didn’t want Willow to hear what had happened to her. I told her it was okay because that’s what Willow does; she stays with you through the whole thing. We went to court with her, too. It is a privilege to work alongside the CAC. They have such a hard job, and they do such a good job. I am very honored.”

Trisha Melberg, Deputy Director of the Office of Prosecution Services and District Attorney Association stated, “This is the most incredible program I have ever seen. The Facility Dogs can be there for medical exams for children, disclosures of abuse, and it is very traumatic. A lot of those victims wouldn’t make it through the entire courtroom process without the help of a Facility Dog. They wouldn’t go through with it.”

Through Canine Companions for Independence, HERO Facility Dog, Willow and Martin started it all for Alabama. In May of 2014, Martin was in Montgomery with Willow, mainly seeing domestic violence and child victims. Word spread through the state, and the demand for a Facility Dog grew. Martin and Willow traveled all over Alabama trying to meet the demand while being self-funded. In 2018, the grant writing was done by Melberg and Barry Matson, Director of the Office of Prosecution Services and District Attorney Association, and they were awarded the grant through ADECA.

From there they expanded, and two more dogs were added. Today there are 11 Facility Dogs placed throughout the state in regions.

The dogs have also impressed themselves upon the members of the court. Court reporters have stated that it is fascinating watching Willow work, and the presiding judges have been impressed as well.

Melberg followed up with, “I just want to echo what Tamara said, and it’s an honor for the Office of Prosecution Services. The Facility Dogs do absolutely amazing. Since October of 2018, we have served over 1,200 victims since the grant went through.”

I recently sat down with a child victim, who is grown now, who told me her story. When she was abused and going through foster care and the legal process, there wasn’t a CAC in Jackson County, and she had to go to DeKalb County. There was also no CSNA. There was no HERO Dog Program, and there was no Victim Services Officer (VSO) stationed at the District Attorney’s office.
Of all the resources now available to abuse victims in Jackson County, she stated, “That would have been wonderful to have when I was growing up. I’m so thankful we have these here now, because we need them.”

It’s sobering to realize that each of these essential programs operate on a grant that must be renewed and approved, and most of them rely upon those grant funds, grassroots fundraising and the charity of others to stay operational.

We’re really not that far from where my mother was. No resources. No haven. No chance. Even all these years later and even after all the accomplishments we have made between then and now, we are still teetering on the brink of children and the most vulnerable losing their advocacy, their voice. But there is a way we can ensure these organizations, that are readily available in other parts of the country, stick around in the future for our part of the country.

The CAC relies greatly upon financial community support as they were recently informed that a large part of their budget would be cut. Because of the lack of funds, they were forced to reduce their staff and the resources available to these children. They rely on private donors for the funds needed to provide these services, and the core of that support comes from the community of individuals who make annual unrestricted gifts. Donate by mail: Make checks payable to Jackson County Children’s Advocacy Center: ATTN: Fundraising, P.O. Box 902, Scottsboro, Ala. 35768.

CSNA is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that provides free services to survivors of intimate partner violence in Jackson, Madison, Morgan and Limestone counties. Forensic nurses offer exams to anyone who has been physically or sexually assaulted and work to provide evidence to law enforcement when requested. For local services, contact CSNA of Jackson County at 256.574.5826, or send a tax-deductible donation by mail to CSNA Administrative Office, P.O. Box 368, Huntsville, Ala. 35804.

You can learn more about these agencies by checking out their Facebook pages: Jackson County Children’s Advocacy Center; Crisis Services of North Alabama; HERO – Alabama’s Courthouse Facility Dog Program.

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