Court Advocates for Animals

CourtroomJoann and Ed Bray spend time in state and municipal courts the way other people spend time on tennis courts – they are there to serve.

The Chicago couple goes three or four times a week to courtrooms around the city, trying to support animal welfare. They are members of the Dog Advisory Work Group (DAWG), a court advocacy program under which individuals attend court cases to support not only victims of animal abuse and dog-fighting, but law enforcement professionals who arrest and prosecute offenders.

"We think of ourselves as the cheering section for the police officers and the assistant state’s attorneys," Ed says. "And we know our presence is appreciated."

DAWG was founded by Cynthia Bathurst, principal director and co-founder of Safe Humane Chicago (SNC), the citywide coalition of government agencies, religious groups, representatives from the Chicago police force, community alliances and animal welfare and rescue groups that operates under the DAWG umbrella. …

 "Some of our advocates travel to collar counties and even to neighboring states," Cynthia says. "People from all over the country email us about the program and how they can start one in their community…."

Since its inception in 2000, some 700 volunteers have gone through DAWG’s court advocacy program. Training involves a two-hour educational seminar and at least one courtroom appearance with an experienced court advocate. And there are monthly meetings for court advocates.

Each week, between three to 10 animal cruelty-related cases are typically heard in Chicago courts. Advocates view the court schedule online and sign up to attend one or more of the hearings. Some people like the Brays go weekly. Others can only go once or twice a month, maybe once or twice a year.

Advocates wear their DAWG identification badges and carry with them the details of the case, along with copies of the laws and penalties associated with case.

"They bring these materials to share with the assistant state’s attorneys who may be new to animal related cases," Cynthia says. "We’re there to educate police officers… to answer questions from trainees and other community members.

"Advocates also ensure that court personnel know the procedures for getting the victimized animals out of the impoundment that removed them from abuse, and, it is hoped, into a loving home."

It’s not exactly "Law & Order" glamorous, but having court advocates doing what they do – just being there and reporting on what they hear and learn – does make a difference.

Helen Issep has served as court advocate since before the formation of the DAWG program. She sees the difference she makes every time she steps into a courtroom.

"We’re sending a message to the lawmakers that we’re watching," she says. "And I see the progress we’ve made, the influence we make. For instance, we’re seeing some of these watered-down sentences replaced by stronger penalties, and that means a sentence that may save the life of a dog."

Since DAWG began, convictions have increased and penalties have become stronger. Light fines and dismissals – and returning dogs to abusive owners – have been replaced more often by a harsher animal cruelty sentence, which requires removal of the animal from the property.

This trend has been strengthened by the passage of stricter laws in Illinois, including a statute strongly supported by the DAWG court advocates that prohibits violent felons released from prison from living in the same residence with any dog that is intact and not microchipped for ten years after incarceration. This is a proactive strike against dog fighting and the use of dogs as weapons.

In recent years, DAWG court advocate Susan Schein DiManno has noticed that police officers are making a greater effort to help the animals victimized by abuse and negligence.

"One of the most memorable cases happened in my own district," she says. "A man shot a Chihuahua. The officer took the dog to the vet and stayed up all night to research how he could to charge the offender with the greatest penalty. The man wound up having to pay $2,500 plus court costs and 200 hours in community service working with a pit bull rescue."

Written by Amy Abern (reprinted with permission)