Young sexual abuse victims find comfort in therapy dogs assisting D.A.’s office

The Orange County district attorney’s office unveiled the PAWS Assist the Needs of the District Attorney (PANDA) program in 2015, where Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) volunteers and their therapy dogs are on-site to comfort sexual assault victims as they meet with prosecutors.
(Courtesy of PAWS)

A child victim of sexual abuse is worried about testifying against her alleged attacker. The only thing that gives her the courage to take the stand is a small lock of hair belonging to her new friend — 5-year-old Siberian husky Patriot.

Another child, one of three victims, is afraid of seeing her family member, accused of sexually abusing her. As she and her other family members meet with the prosecution team, the family begins sobbing uncontrollably. The dog assigned to the young girl leans into her and gazes into the girl’s eyes.

“As if trying to say, ‘I’m sorry for you, but I’m here for you,’ ” said Cindy Woxen of Rancho Santa Margarita, whose 65-pound, 9-year-old greyhound, Teagan — along with Patriot — is part of the PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) Assist the Needs of the District Attorney (PANDA) program.

PANDA is a partnership between Huntington Beach-based Orange County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OCSPCA) and the Orange County district attorney’s office to help comfort children of sexual abuse when meeting with prosecutors on their case.

The program began in December 2015 and is available to victims of sexual assault under 18, with the average age of victims ranging from 6 to 12, said Alicia A. Nicosia, PANDA program manager for the Sexual Assault Unit at the district attorney’s office.

“When the therapy dogs enter the room, the children tend to light up or smile,” Nicosia said.

Woxen sees it often with Teagan, a former racing greyhound she adopted five years ago from a rescue.

“There have been a couple times during our PANDA visits where she refuses to leave the side of a child who needs her,” Woxen said.

Rich Blough of Westminster said that after he retired from his work as an educator, he volunteered with the OCSPCA’s PAWS therapy program, where volunteers and their dogs go to nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, hospice and children’s homes throughout the county.

PANDA volunteers must have experience in PAWS as one of the prerequisites. When PANDA began, Blough and his 25-pound, 13-year-old rescue beagle Tasha volunteered.

“Tasha likes to snuggle with children,” Blough said. “We had one teenager who just want[ed] to hold Tasha on her lap in the interview room. Another preteen snuggled with Tasha in the play room. She cried when she had to leave the dog.”

Kevin Marlin, district attorney’s office PAWS and PANDA program director, said there are currently 16 volunteer handler-dog teams involved in PANDA. The group has so far assisted in more than 85 cases.

“I had one experience where a young victim wept over the thought of remembering her abuse, and hugged Patriot for comfort,” Marlin said. “She had a difficult time leaving him and returned a second time for his comfort.”

PANDA teams are selected based on factors including the temperament of the dog and professionalism of the volunteer, Marlin said. The teams must have a minimum of two years of therapy service experience within the OCSPCA and must undergo additional training, Live Scan fingerprinting and background checks, and an interview process.

Some of the dogs — including Patriot, who was rescued as a puppy with injuries to his muzzle and mouth that were most likely caused by a metal wire — have had their own traumatic experiences.

Ann Carruthers of Newport Beach fostered Siberian husky Taylor when the then 2-year-old first came into the rescue, Husky Camp, where she volunteers. They bonded immediately.

“She had been a very dirty and sick stray who appeared to have lived on the streets for some time,” Carruthers said.

It didn’t take long for Carruthers to realize Taylor had most likely been abused and suffered from a serious urinary medical condition. Carruthers decided to permanently adopt Taylor.

“I made a promise to Taylor to get her better,” she said.

Three procedures and a team of specialists later, Taylor, now 6, is living an almost completely normal life. And now she’s helping others.

“Taylor will just sit with them, inching closer to them or reaching out with a paw and letting it sit on their foot just so the kids know she’s there,” Carruthers said.

Jessica Peralta is a contributor to Times Community News.