By Julie Grant

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — It’s a complicated problem with no easy solution. Domestic violence is hard to talk about it. The cases can be difficult to prosecute. Victims fear even more abuse, and reliving the incident in court can be traumatic.

But what if a helpful tool could be found at an animal shelter?

Crisis Center North’s ‘Paws for Empowerment Program’ is turning rescued dogs into Canine Court Advocates.

Penny doesn’t carry a briefcase or present arguments to the Judge, but she is a powerful advocate. When she goes to magisterial district court.

“When you hear about this kind of work, at first you’re like – no, no. But when you see it in action, it’s amazing,” said Frankie Embrescia, a victims’ advocate and canine handler.

There is much more to Penny than her soft coat of fur. She is specially trained to evaluate and respond to each victim’s emotional needs.

“Imagine talking about someone hitting you, choking you, a whole range of behaviors and telling that in a public court setting,” said Grace Coleman, Executive Director of Crisis Center North.

Coleman is Penny’s mom at home and her boss at Crisis Center North where they offer services that include legal advocacy and counseling.

“My father was a veterinarian, and he often told me that a good dog was a dog that had a job. So, when he passed away, I wanted to make sure I gave a couple of shelter dogs a job,” said Coleman.

Penny’s job came about when she was with Grace at work one day.

“There was a little boy who did not want to go to counseling. So I asked him, will you take Penny to counseling? He took Penny into counseling and the counselor came out and said they had covered more ground that they had in six months,” said Coleman.

That’s when she knew Penny would have a job helping victims.

One woman KDKA spoke to found herself in a lethal domestic violence situation. The court case is now closed and Penny is helping her through counseling. She wishes Penny could have been her Canine Court Advocate when she testified in court.

“The first time that I had to go in front of the magistrate, he was right in the same room. And they expected me to sit there with him,” said the woman.

“Nowhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights does it say you have the right to a dog when you come to court. But we’ve been fortunate to have that provided,” said Magisterial District Justice Anthony Saveikis.

Cheri Herschell trains Penny and the newest Canine Advocate Ari using “the intuitive method” and their keen sense of smell.

“Our dogs are allowed to interact with the victims as they feel that the victim needs them and they’ve never been wrong,” said Herschell.

The dogs will signal to the human advocates what a victim is feeling.

“A victim could, for instance, be exhibiting every symptom of anxiety in the world, but if our dogs are telling us that victim has depression. We’re more likely to delve deeper into those subjects with the victim to try to bring out maybe an emotion that they’re suppressing,” said Herschell.

Wyatt, Quincy and Caitlin are the Canine Kids.

“Me and the other kids make these dogs know what kids are so they’re not afraid of them,” said Wyatt Herschell.

They socialize with Penny and Ari so they are always ready for child victims.

‘Paws for Empowerment’ is the first program in the domestic violence movement doing canine court advocacy in Pennsylvania and the first using shelter dogs.

“We’re taking dogs that in many instances could be euthanized or live their lives inside of shelters and giving them a new home, a new community and lots of love,” said Coleman.

Perhaps it’s the combination of love and a job that allows the dogs to make a difference.

The District Attorney’s Office of Allegheny County provided funding to get the program started. Recently, Verizon Wireless has donated a sizable grant which will allow for further expansion in 2018.

For more information on Crisis Center North and Paws for Empowerment visit: http://crisiscenternorth.org

The 24-Hour Hotline is 1-866-792-0911. It’s also toll free.

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