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The magistrate’s tail: How these pets are helping child rape victims get justice

In court, comfort for the tiniest victims of sexual abuse can come from the unlikeliest of places.

“All rise,” a voice declares as the magistrate enters the room. The Krugersdorp Magistrate’s Court is packed. A black and red robe drapes gracefully around the magistrate’s shoulders. In front of her, a shuffling ensues as people attempt to sit comfortably on the hard wooden benches.

Then, the room falls quiet in anticipation of the morning’s proceedings.

But magistrate Kleio has become distracted.

She stops to sniff the air. It’s suddenly filled with a delicious, meaty smell.

Suddenly, she spins around, gobbling up a treat from an outstretched hand behind her. 

Sated and lips smacking, she shifts her focus back to the matter she’s presiding over — her short, black tail still wagging.

Therapy dogs from Top Dogs are dressed up as role players in the Krugersdorp Magistrates Court to showcase how court proceedings work to children that have to testify in court.
Introducing Kleio: Therapy dogs at the Krugersdorp Magistrate’s Court are dressed up as courthouse characters to help teach children about the court process and their roles in it. (Photos: Wikus de Wet)

Kleio is one of a rotating pack of about 15 specially-trained therapy hounds that descend upon the Krugersdorp Magistrate Court west of Johannesburg every second Saturday.

She’s no ordinary magistrate. 

This week, Kleio is flanked by, among others: Betty the stenographer, court orderly Peanut, and Flake — the prosecutor. Each dog is dressed in a costume tailored to the role they take on in mock courtroom proceedings.

Travis, a shiny black labrador, has been cast in the role of the defense advocate. He’s sporting a patched, bedraggled toga “to show that he represents the bad guy”, Corrie Niemann explains.  

Niemann is the vice president at Top Dogs, a volunteer organisation that specialises in training pups to take part in animal-assisted therapy. This kind of counselling pairs trained dogs such as Kleio with healthcare professionals, psychologists or teachers to help people recover from psychological trauma or even heart disease, the US medical organisation Mayo Clinic explains on its website.

For about four years, Top Dogs has worked with Johannesburg’s Teddy Bear Foundation. With several branches in Gauteng, the foundation supports children who have been sexually abused or neglected as well as their families through a range of counselling. The centres also provide the specialist medical care needed to collect physical evidence for those looking to open a case against the perpetrators. 

That’s why Kleio and the gang are at the Krugersdorp Magistrate’s Court — to play their part in the Teddy Bear Foundation’s court preparation programme for sexually abused children. 

One in three South African children will have experienced some form of sexual abuse by the age of 17 — enough children to fill Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium eight times. 

The Optimus Study

More than 24 000 cases of child sexual abuse were registered by the South African Police Service last year — a 4% increase in reported assaults since 2005, according to crime statistics released earlier this month.

These figures, however, only reflect cases that were reported to the police, and national and community-based studies suggest the real numbers are likely far higher, says Lucy Jamieson, a child rights researcher at UCT’s Children’s Institute. 

Research suggests that one in three South African children will have experienced some form of sexual abuse by the time they reach the age of 17 — enough children to fill Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium eight times. 

That’s according to the Optimus Study, which asked almost 10 000 South African teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 if they’d ever experienced sexual violence, including rape and exposure to pornography. Because of the study’s design, this figure also includes consensual sexual acts between 17 and 18-year-olds, which are legal in South Africa.

In South Africa, the age of consent is 16. But the country’s 2007 Sexual Offences Act provides for children between the ages of 12 and 15 to have sex with each other legally. Adults — people 18 and older — who have sex with children between the ages of 12 and 16 are guilty of statutory rape. The law does, however, allow for children aged 16 or 17 to legally have sex with people who are up to two years younger than themselves.

The research revealed children who had a supportive family environment, for instance, whose parents regularly knew who they were with and where they went, were far less likely to report having been sexually abused.

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Similarly, the Optimus study echoed previous research in finding that children who lived with neither or just one biological parent had an increased risk of sexual abuse, with the risk being higher for young people living with neither parent than for those living with one biological parent.

Almost two-thirds of South Africa children live in single-parent households, a Statistics South Africa’s 2016 community survey revealed. 

In 40% of cases, the Optimus Study found, South African children had been victims of abuse two or more times. 

And, while about one in three children who were abused by an adult they know also reported having injuries, only about 30% of these children sought medical help.

Therapy dogs from Top Dogs are dressed up as role players in the Krugersdorp Magistrates Court to showcase how court proceedings work to children that have to testify in court.
Taking notes and taking treats: Betty, the court stenographer is poised and ready to play her part in helping little children feel more at ease in court.

It’s a dry and icy August day at the Krugersdorp Magistrate’s Court. Inside courtroom F, about 30 children sit fidgeting on benches — a sea of puffy jackets in blue and purple hues. 

They’re all due to testify in court as witnesses in sexual abuse cases. Most likely their own.  

Even in cases that never make it to court, children may be required to give eyewitness reports during the course of the investigation or to determine their emotional and intellectual competency to testify. And for victims of abuse, the stress of this process can cause more trauma, explains the clinical director at the Teddy Bear Foundation Shaheda Omar.  

Children who experienced sexual abuse were three times as likely to report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder such as anxiety and nightmares than other young people, the Optimus study found. One in five children who have been sexually abused by adults are also likely to have problems with their schoolwork. 

The more times a child testified, research found, the worse they coped with the trauma later on. But children were worse off even a decade later if they had not testified at all and their abusers received light sentences.

Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 2005

But for children who go on to testify against their abusers, this emotional distress can be even more severe — even years after the case had ended, found a 2005 study published in the journal Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 

The researchers followed about 200 sexually abused child witnesses in the United States for 12 years after they testified in court in the ’80s. Rape victims who had testified in court reported worse mental health than children who didn’t, even after researchers took into account the psychological issues that were present before their cases started. 

The more times a child testified, the worse off they were later in life, and the less likely they were to be able to adjust to everyday life when their case ended — especially if their testimony was the only evidence to support their case. Although, victims were worse off in adulthood if they did not testify and the perpetrator was given a light sentence. These children reported higher levels of anxiety about whether they were believed.  

Children who were older when they testified and had a better understanding of what their involvement in the legal system meant, remained negative about their experience of the legal system as they grew older. Younger children’s attitude however dissipated somewhat. 

That’s why these youngsters are getting special training in Krugersdorp. 

“Who wants to be our magistrate today?” sings the Teddy Bear Foundation staff member who runs the programme. 

A few tiny hands shoot up — they know the drill.  

By the time the children gather for a practice-run in court, they’ve already been taught about the different court characters in smaller group sessions with the dressed-up dogs, Omar says. 

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Depending on their age, they may also have filled out worksheets that help them come to grips with each one’s role in the court. They’ll get to know the dogs after the court run-through too, in sessions set up specially to walk, brush or feed them. 

“This way,” Omar explains, “the children are less anxious and they get to know who’s who in the zoo.” 

A young girl gets up, confidently takes a black robe from the smiling Teddy Bear Foundation staffer, and ambles up to take her seat next to Kleio, who’s enjoying a luxurious head scratch from her handler. The dogs are never let off their leash, Niemann says. 

When all the actors have been cast and handed their scripts, a mock court case begins — but the details won’t overlap with any of the real cases in which the kids are involved. 

Today, magistrate Kleio is trying to get behind the case of a certain missing television, which the court has heard, was apparently shiny. And purple.

Child pets therapy dog
Ruff day at the office: Peanut the court orderly gets some love after a long morning in court. When the serious work is over the children get an opportunity to play with the dogs outside.

Plopped down in the hallway close to Shaheda Omar’s Parktown office is a giant plush teddy bear — larger probably than most of the children that pass it on the way to therapy. 

Sitting in her office, Omar is surrounded by the foundation’s namesake. Teddy bears dot a bookcase behind her, snuggled between psychology books and awards for the centre’s work. Opposite her desk, a row of the stuffed animals sit on the floor, propped up against a yellow wall next to tiny chairs set up especially for the centre’s little patients. 

“Courtrooms are not built for children,” she says, adjusting the giant red bow pinned to the front of her blouse with a sparkly brooch. 

Even less so when those children are victims of abuse.

She explains: “Children who have experienced trauma often generalise their experience onto everything. They’ll be afraid of everything and everyone.”

But a fascinating phenomenon begins to take shape when the kids start to trust the dogs. They become less fearful. And, the little ones gradually begin to trust their court preparation counsellors and social workers. 

Omar chalks this up to the calming effect of the four-legged therapists: “The dogs help them heal,” she says.  

And, there’s science to back her up.

In 2017, researchers randomly assigned children between the ages of 7 and 12 to rooms where they were asked to do public speaking for five minutes, and then complete a maths problem all in front of an audience of two unencouraging adults they hadn’t met before. The children faced this scary event either alone, with a caregiver, or with their pet dog.  The kids who had their animal companions reported feeling less stressed than those in both the other two scenarios. 

In the same study, children who petted their furry friends for comfort also had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The study, published in the journal Social Development in 2017, concluded that pet dogs could act as a kind of stress buffer for children.

Locally, research published in the South African Journal of Psychology in 2013, found therapy dogs even helped to improve traumatised children’s self-esteem and social skills.

At least one small, experimental study suggests the furry companions may also help adults.

A 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology found that women who interacted with therapy dogs directly after being shown a traumatic film clip reported lower levels of anxiety than those who were simply shown a video of a therapy dog or were left alone after seeing the footage.

But, animal-assisted therapy is a relatively new field, and a research review published in the Frontiers of Psychology in 2015 found that while this kind of intervention could be useful to treat trauma in conjunction with traditional methods such as counselling, more work is needed to determine whether it can be used as a stand-alone treatment.

In the meantime, the Teddy Bear Foundation has found that the more relaxed the children are when testifying in court, the better witnesses they become. 

And that trend has been bad news — for the bad guys. The organisation’s data shows their conviction rates have steadily improved since Top Dogs became involved in their court preparation programme. 

But it’s not just the dogs, Omar argues. It takes a whole team of experts — including lawyers, police officers, psychologists and parents — to prepare a child to testify in court. 

“It’s not about coaching the child what to say,” she says, as the morning sun bounces around her brightly coloured office. 

“It’s about teaching him or her to retell the events as they remember it unfolding. And — that it’s okay if you don’t remember, to just say so.”

Back in the cold stuffy courtroom in Krugersdorp, magistrate Kleio’s human counterpart is inching ever-closer to her. 

“What we’ve seen is that the children slowly start testing the waters, getting closer, closer and even start touching the dogs,” Omar says.  Even those that initially cried or avoided the dogs and showed resistance, start engaging with the dogs.”

By the time the fake session draws to a close, a glance around the courtroom reveals more and more tiny hands resting on furry backs.

Therapy dogs from Top Dogs are dressed up as role players in the Krugersdorp Magistrates Court to showcase how court proceedings work to children that have to testify in court.  In this photograph Flake is dressed up as the State Prosecutor.
Flake, the state prosecutor. This friendly hound is a favourite among the children, who line up to pet him after the practice session ends.

Just before the court adjourns, a loud thump echoes around the courtroom.  

Then, snorts and giggles. Flake, the shiny black dog dressed as a prosecutor, has tumbled off his chair.  A stretch gone too far. 

It’s a tough life, that of a therapy dog, but before everyone can leave the stuffy courtroom to romp around outside, the teacher asks the class to recap questions about what they’ve learnt. 

“And what is the role of the witness?” the teacher asks. 

From the front row, a tiny little girl, around 5 years old, puts up her hand and answers proudly: “To tell the truth.”

The Teddy Bear Foundation hopes to expand the court preparation programme, which currently only runs in two centres in Johannesburg and Krugersdorp. If everything goes according to plan, the first new satellite clinic will be in Soweto, Omar says. 

Luckily, since the court preparation programme depends mostly on the work of volunteers, it doesn’t cost much to run. The foundation estimates the programme costs about R1 000 to run per year. 

As for the dogs, they’ll work for the odd tummy rub. The trouble is finding enough pet owners willing to offer their pets to be trained for the job. 

“We’ll need 15 more volunteer handlers and dogs for each new site,” Top Dogs’ Corrie Niemann explains. 

Niemann dreams of a day when dogs will make their first appearance in South Africa’s courts. 

In the United States, more than 200 dogs work in 40 states around the country, the non-profit Courthouse Dogs estimates. The dogs are also one of several options given to young people in Canada who need help getting through tough court cases.

But here at home, Omar adds, children are not always in the court session. In some cases, children testify, as Nicholas Ninow’s victim did, “in camera” or in a private room accompanied by a social worker. Niemann is adamant that even in this setting, a furry companion could make a world of difference. 

For now, he and his team provide children with a knitted teddy bear, shaped to look like their favourite therapy dog to hold onto as they take the stand.

[Updated 15:30 pm 24 January 2020: This article was updated to reflect that children between the ages of 12 and 15 can have sex with each other legally, and not children between the ages of 12 and 16 as originally stated.]

Joan van Dyk was a health journalist, senior health journalist and news editor at Bhekisisa between 2017 and 2023.