Mid afternoon on a late winter day, a petite-sized Golden Retriever appeared at the employee entrance of the Leon County, Florida Courthouse. Freshly bathed and brushed, Rikki Lake Pontchartrain Mitchell stepped inside the sliding glass doors and swished her tail in gentle greeting at the uniformed deputies. Following two steps behind her, in his own uniform of white polo tucked into baggy khakis, was a tall man with a thick head of metallic silver hair. Chuck Mitchell said hello to the men and hoisted his knapsack on the x-ray conveyor belt. If the deputy found anything peculiar about its contents – two water bottles, dog brush, bowl, poop bags, hand sanitizing gels, and a Ziploc of organic baby carrots – he refrained from comment.
Chuck moved the leash slightly, motioning for Rikki to step through the metal detector with him following. When the alarm sounded, the dog halted so the deputy with a wand could confirm her metal ID and rabies tags were the culprit. Both officers kept their eyes resting on Rikki, and once again, Chuck felt himself disappear. He watched as the dog’s brow furrowed, seeming to read their disposition. Her head dropped slightly, as if seeking permission, before she moved closer to claim her reward: one deputy’s hand on her head and the other stroking her back.
Rikki’s workday had begun.
* * *
Chuck considered these types of encounters a bonus. Rikki’s primary mission for the day was waiting for her upstairs in the form of a child victim who was about to have her first experience of the legal system in Florida. By law, this seven-year-old girl was required to give details about the most horrific thing that she’d ever experienced. She had to tell her story to a defense attorney – whose job was to discredit her – in a formal hearing facing the man who committed the crime, and again in front of the same man and a nine-member jury of strangers, while sitting in an adult-sized witness chair with a black-robed judge enthroned above.
As a courthouse Therapy Dog, it was Rikki’s job to get the child ready.
Susan Parmalee, the child’s victim advocate, met Chuck and Rikki in the marbled rotunda upstairs. A picture of softness with bangs, chestnut hair and flowing skirt, she greeted Chuck with a side hug and stroked the top of Rikki’s head. Susan wasn’t a dog person – she preferred cats – but had fallen under the influence of Rikki’s charm and now had a collection of miniature Retriever figurines lining her bookshelves.
The mother and child were waiting upstairs in Susan’s office, she said, but Chuck and Rikki would need to use the employee elevator, since Therapy Dogs were not allowed to use the public ones. Rikki trotted to stay in step with their exercise walk pace toward the south lobby. She managed to get a quick sniff of a planter, but otherwise restrained her natural instincts that weren’t part of today’s job description. Rikki paused at the elevators and when the doors opened, she moved easily over the threshold without alarm. Following Chuck’s lead, she turned to face the opening like the two-legged creatures around her.
Susan was giving Chuck a few more details on the case. A defense attorney planned to take the first-grader’s deposition later that week. Zoe was about five years old when the sexual abuse occurred and the case had stalled for two years. The child had not talked about it since her videotaped forensics interview 48 hours after the incident, so they didn’t know if she could recall the facts or would be willing to re-visit the memory. Susan and Prosecutor John Hutchins, who was trying the case for the state, hoped having Rikki around would lessen the girl’s anxiety, increase her focus and reduce the chance of further traumatizing. Zoe’s mother, who would also be called as a witness, had remained patient in spite of the continuous delays by the court. The case involved a close family friend, but Danielle wanted justice. She liked the idea of a volunteer Therapy Dog team and thought her daughter would be receptive, even though their family didn’t have pets.
As soon as Chuck and Rikki rounded the corner near Susan’s office, Zoe abandoned the kids’ toy collection and came running to the dog. Her tiny hands discovered Rikki’s soft velvet ears and Zoe’s blue eyes looked up at the giant man at the end of the leash. She wanted to know everything about her new friend – what’s her name? How old is she? Where does she live?
Chuck lowered himself to the child’s level and held a baby carrot in front of Rikki, which she delicately received. Zoe’s eyes grew wide, “Can I feed her one, too?”
Chuck told Zoe that Rikki was a very special dog. When she was only nine weeks old, she and her sister and mom lost their home during Hurricane Katrina. They were brought to Tallahassee and Rikki found her forever-home with Chuck and his wife Patty. The dog was now four years old.
“Do you want to see one of her tricks?” Zoe nodded eagerly. He held a baby carrot in front of Rikki’s nose and said, “Kiss,” then put the carrot between his lips. Rikki’s nose approached his face slowly and she parted her teeth, gently retrieving the carrot. Zoe’s face lit up. “Can I try?” Chuck looked toward her mom who nodded, so he handed the girl a carrot.
After a few attempts, Zoe mastered the trick. Chuck told her how Rikki loved to chase squirrels, that she had a brother named Roscoe, a Yellow Lab, at home and said Rikki especially liked to be scratched behind her ears. Zoe promptly reached out and started stroking behind one ear; the dog’s head leaned into her doll-sized hand and Chuck saw Rikki's jaw relax in contentment, as if she was smiling.
About 15 minutes into the visit, Zoe lay on the floor next to Rikki, an arm draped over the dog’s belly. Rikki was lying on her side, perfectly still, her long red lashes only partly closed, as she remained alert to her surroundings. Chuck was sitting on the floor, still holding the leash, but giving them space, and Danielle sat in a chair against the wall. All watched the scene unfold like a movie.
Prosecuting Attorney John Hutchins appeared at the door and stopped when he saw the dog and child. Susan Parmalee knelt down next to Rikki, stroked her fur, and asked Zoe if she remembered what happened that time between her and Mr. Frank. Quietly, the girl answered, “Yes.”
Did she think she could tell Rikki about it?
Zoe turned her face toward the dog’s head and began, story-like, recalling what happened that Saturday night when her mother had put her and her brother Eli to bed. The family had been suffering from the flu that week and the refrigerator was bare. Zoe’s parents called one of their best friends to see if he would stay at the house while they went to Walmart. Ms. Heather was away, but Mr. Frank said he was happy to help out.
Zoe rubbed the dog’s ears as she whispered the story. During some parts, she gazed off in the distance, and in others, she propped herself up on an elbow to look into Rikki’s eyes as if to make her understand. When Zoe’s attention and the story faded, it was obvious to everyone in the room: Rikki’s gift had worked; they would have a stronger witness because of her.