Region 8 agency first in Missouri to use support dogs

DONIPHAN, MO (KAIT) – The Ozark Family Resource Agency is participating in a research project by the University of Missouri at Columbia to determine the effectiveness of support animals. According to Diane Silman, Executive Director of the OFRA, the agency is the first in the state to get involved with such research on children who participate in forensic interviews as part of the investigative process into child abuse.

"The child comes here because there's been a report made that the child has been abused in some way. Most of the cases that we deal with involve sexual abuse, but it could also be physical abuse, witness to violence, involved with a meth lab home or something like that," said Silman.

Silman said the agency has been using a support dog, Simon, to get children to relax as much as possible before, during and after the forensic interview. Recently, the Missouri state legislature allowed the use of animals to serve as support during abuse investigations.

"He was the first dog in the state of Missouri to serve in this capacity in a child advocacy center sitting in on forensic interviews with children," said Silman. "If they (children) have to go to court later on, he actually accompanies them to court."

Silman said Simon, a four-year old black lab, was trained for more than two years by Support Dogs of St. Louis.

"We are involved in a research grant with the University of Missouri at Columbia. They have a division that studies animal/human interaction. We just began the grant February 1 to try to prove the benefits of using the dog in the forensic interview and subsequent court process," said Silman. "If they are willing, they may be able to use the dog during the interview and they may not, because there is a control group so that this is valid research that's done in a very professional manner."

Silman told Region 8 News researchers will analyze blood pressure, body temperature and facial features in interviews with children using Simon and those that don't. She said she expects the results to prove the effectiveness of using support dogs to relieve anxiety.

"It is known to be a representation of the amount of fear and anxiety the child is feeling, so by using a control group, the statisticians will be able to compare the data from children in the control group as compared to the children in the dog group," said Silman. "There surely have been times when the child will just not open up. I'll say, could you tell Simon what happened to you? Sometimes they'll actually get in the floor with him. They sometimes want to whisper in his ear and we have to deal with that also."

To read more about the use of animals in court cases involving children, click here.

"Something that many people aren't aware of is that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday in this country," said Silman.

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