Cass County Prosecutor’s Office welcomes new canine advocate

Published 9:22 am Wednesday, February 20, 2019

CASSOPOLIS — Despite being less than 2 years old and walking on all fours, the Cass Prosecutor’s Office’s newest employee has all the right qualifications.

The employee, a golden retriever named Belle, sits at the feet of victims in the witness stand and provides comfort that no two-legged employee could, according to leadership with the Prosecutor’s Office.

The Cass County Prosecutor’s Office recently welcomed Belle, a courtroom support canine, to its team. She will serve as a canine advocate, an increasingly common tool used by prosecutors’ offices across the state to prepare victims for court as well as to assist and support them in their courtroom experience.

“We are very pleased to have Belle,” said Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz. “Belle is a dog that is highly trained, but most importantly, she has the temperament for what she is called to do.”

Belle comes to the office through the Canine Advocacy Program, which was developed as an advocacy service to provide child crime victims with comfort and support as they navigate the criminal justice system. All dogs with CAP are trained with the same standards as Leader Dogs for the Blind. The program is entirely grant funded and does not incur costs for the counties that utilize canine advocates.

Currently, there are more than 30 support dogs in at least 26 counties working in the state of Michigan. This includes prosecutor’s offices in surrounding counties including Berrien, Van Buren, Kalamazoo and St. Joseph counties.

Cass County’s journey to obtaining Belle began in 2015 after staff learned of the program. After working through the time necessary for a dog to become available, as well as working through various personnel changes and needs in the prosecutor’s office, the Cass County Prosecutor’s Office received a call in November 2018 from CAP, announcing that Belle was available for training and use in Cass County.

Now, Fitz said Belle is ready to take on the work of helping guide crime victims through the justice system.

Belle’s primary job going forward will be to help put victims — primarily child victims — at ease as they testify both in the courtroom and in meetings with prosecutors and other courtroom officials.

“Her laser focus is to help victims and have her focus on a victim to the exclusion of everyone else. She is a comfort dog,” Fitz said. “Some of the stories we hear are extremely traumatic — personal violations, many times with personal injuries. Nature just provides a bond between children and dogs and that is part of the reason that this program is a success.”

Belle’s handler, Amanda Smego, said Belle works at the office for six to seven hours a day. As someone who spends all of those hours with Belle and someone who was a key advocate of getting Belle in the county, Smego said the good Belle could do for victims is immeasurable.

“It will definitely help with the kids,” Smego said. “A lot of times, it is hard for a kid to tell an adult what happened to them, but we can say, ‘Look, tell Belle what happened to you.’ That is easier for a child.”

Though Belle has been present in the Prosecutor’s Office for more than a month, as of Friday, she had yet to work with a victim. Both Fitz and Smego said they are excited to see Belle interact with victims and to begin providing a service to those navigating the criminal justice system.

“Though we love her, her purpose is not to make us happy or brighten our day — though she certainly does that,” Fitz said. “Her job is to be out there helping victims. … She is ready to work with victims in our office, and we expect she will be ready to work in the coming days in the courtroom as well.”