Helping Victims Find Their Voices

Gina Yeager with DA Dogs Max & Beaumont in front of the Roswell Courthouse

Courthouse Canines

Helping Victims Find Their Voices

By Robin Martinez

Within 90 minutes of receiving the call, Gina and Lincoln were packed and leaving Roswell, their destination six hours away. With no idea of how long they’d be gone or who they might encounter, Gina knew only that people were hurting and she and Lincoln could help.

Gina Yeager, Victim’s Advocate with the Fifth Judicial District (encompassing Lea, Chaves and Otero counties) was bound for Aztec with Lincoln, a specially trained black Labrador. A school shooting at Aztec High School meant all-hands-on-deck. Counselors, therapists and CVRC (Crime Victim Reparation Commission) representatives were made available to the victims and the community, to assist with processing the emotions and fallout from the incident.

“The dogs know up to 90 commands, understand sign language and are drawn to the person who need comfort or support.”Gina Yeager

Victim Advocate, Gina Yeager, is the executive officer of DA Court Facility Dogs Foundation.

Gina —  the court facility dog coordinator for the Fifth Judicial District and executive officer of DA Court Facility Dogs Foundation —  knows the value Lincoln and other court facility dogs bring to a stressful situation. Their presence alone can instill confidence and provide compassion to victims struggling to find a voice.

“The dogs provide support, and help the witness or victim to gain and maintain a sense of control,” says Gina. “The dogs offer compassionate understanding, with no judgement or expectations.”

The court facility dog program began in the spring of 2014. Initially, dogs were borrowed from the CASA program (Court Appointed Special Advocates) and the expenses of caring for the dogs were financed within the state budget. In 2015, as budgetary constraints threatened the continuance of the program, Gina took the initiative to create the DA Court Facility Dogs Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, dedicated to maintaining the program, caring for the dogs, and assuring victims of and witnesses to violent crimes a compassionate canine companion to walk with them through the difficulties of telling a horrific story, time and again.

Beaumont comforts a witness with a hug.

The program no longer borrows dogs, but has their own dedicated canines. Though housed in the Fifth District, the dogs travel anywhere needed across the state. They’ve even crossed the state line to visit the victims of the Clovis library shooting, who were hospitalized in Lubbock.

Gina works closely with Santa Fe Assistance Dogs of the West to identify and train dogs for this important program. Dogs are identified as having potential while just puppies, then Assistance Dogs of the West (ADW) spends the next 18-24 months training the canine. Once trained, the dogs are matched to a handler who has also participated in extensive training. Such matching involves many meetings, one-on-one time, and close scrutiny to monitor compatibility between the two. 

While on the job, each canine has a primary handler. These individuals are already employees of the District Attorney’s office, and the dog duties are added to their existing duties. Handlers must be willing to commit to a five-year term with the position, and a lifetime commitment to the dog. 

The dogs are owned by ADW and leased to the state for a small fee, with the primary handler responsible for housing their dog. Secondary handlers are also taught to care for and encourage the dogs to perform as trained.

Gina explains further, “The dogs know up to 90 commands, understand sign language and tend to be drawn to the person who needs comfort or support.”

ADW provides the initial handler training for certification, then handlers are required to maintain their annual re-certification through ongoing education. Due to the affiliation with ADW, the courthouse dog program is nationally recognized by Assistance Dogs International, a worldwide coalition of non-profit programs that train and place assistance dogs. 

 

“Our number one goal is to support our communities.”Gina Yeager

Max provides heartfelt encouragement and support to a witness in the courtroom, sitting at her feet in the witness box.

This affiliation promotes standards of excellence in all areas of assistance dog acquisition, training and partnership, while educating the public to the benefits of assistance dogs.

“The dogs are trained to locate and respond to those who are most stressed in a situation,” says Gina. Once, while Gina was on a phone call, Lincoln jumped up from under her desk and ran down the hall. When Gina went looking for Lincoln, he was found with his head in the lap of a witness in another room. The witness had been hysterical only moments before, but she had quieted and was petting Lincoln, comforted by the dog’s presence.

Beaumont and Max await their orders in the courtroom.

As victim’s advocates, Gina and her counterparts across the state help victims and witnesses navigate the legal system, acting as a go-between for the victims, witnesses and attorneys, locating legal, financial, counseling, housing and medical services —  whatever a victim or witness may need to address the trauma and stress associated with the situation. The courthouse canines are an integral part of the picture.

Gina recalls a senior student at Aztec High School who connected strongly with Lincoln. The student unloaded her thoughts and feelings on Lincoln, processing the traumatic events. Later, the girl brought her parents back specifically to meet Lincoln, the dog who had brought her comfort earlier in the day.

Gina enjoys some downtime with Lincoln, the organization’s first court facility dog. “He’s retired now, but he’s my inspiration,” she says. “He’s why this program grew. When he was working, he greeted everyone like they were there to see him.”

At the sentencing hearing for the Clovis shooter, victims and witnesses had the support of Lincoln at their side while reading their impact statements.

Lincoln isn’t the only courthouse canine working in the Fifth District. Max and Beaumont work from the Chaves County courthouse, and Max’s twin sister McKenzie works from the Lea County location. Courthouse dogs are also located in Taos, Alamogordo and Clovis. Lydia recently retired from service in Otero County.

In addition to their courthouse duties, the dogs are very visible within their respective communities. “Whether attending high school sporting events, leadership activities or charity events, the dogs are great ice-breakers,” says Gina. “Our number-one goal is to support our communities.”

Gina and her counterparts believe strongly in the benefits of the courthouse dogs program. When state funding was cut, many of the handlers bore the expense to maintain the dogs from their own pockets. Program needs are now met primarily through fundraising efforts. According to Gina, it costs around $10,000 for dog and handler to be trained, then approximately $5,000 annually to care for the dog,
including food, vet care and grooming.

Current and past fundraising efforts for the courthouse dogs include salsa sales, an annual color run, dances, painting parties, wreath parties, garage sales and raffles. Area veterinarians or pet supply companies contribute to defray the dog care expenses and private donations are always appreciated. The foundation maintains a website at www.5thDADogs.org  where more information is available, including how to make private contributions. 

When she’s not working with the dogs, Gina can be found hanging out with her favorite people — her husband of 21 years, Richard, their two adult children and three grandchildren, or coaching one of two youth teams in the city basketball league. A former regular on the drag racing circuit, Gina was known to drive a ’74 Mustang hatchback, affectionately dubbed the “Blue Beast.” Now her beasts are of the four-legged variety —  three dogs, a horse, mini-horse, donkey, two mini-pigs and several cats, and of course, Lincoln.