The first dog in South Carolina to be a regular fixture in a courtroom, Roma played in Solicitor Chrissy Adams’ office last week, getting her yellow hair all over Adams’ black pants.
Roma put her paw on the wall, rising up and trying to turn on the light switch. A minute later she retrieved a squeaky toy as Adams tossed it around the office.
A Labrador and Golden retriever mix, Roma wears a thin blue vest with her ID and paperwork hidden behind small zippers.
When the vest is on, Roma’s all business.
She’s a quiet McGruff the Crime Dog.
Her business is to relax people, so business often looks like she’s curled up and napping.
As long as that vest stays on, Roma steadfastly turns her nose, even refusing her squeaky toy.
The moment her vest comes off, the 2-year-old lunges forward and jumps around with the toy.
“She’s still a dog,” said Assistant Solicitor Chelsey Moore, Roma’s closest coworker, her roommate and handler.
Before setting paw in the downtown Anderson courthouse recently, Roma had to get written approval from officials: three Circuit Court judges, four Family Court judges and Clerk of Court Richard Shirley.
Roma now has blanket permission to lay in the courtroom alongside Moore most days.
One of her first jobs was comforting a woman in tears who was about to plead guilty recently, Adams said.
A defense attorney asked if the woman could use the dog and Moore walked Roma over, had her sit down and Roma went to work: laying there and being a comfort.
“The woman bent over and started talking about how much she loved dogs,” Adams said. “It visibly calmed her down.”
Until Roma walked over and laid down, the woman may not have been in a condition to enter a plea, Adams said.
“Roma’s going to be giving people strength and courage to help testify,” Adams said. “She’ll give victims the comfort and security they need to face their abusers.”
Dogs are especially useful in child sex cases, but Roma will also be expected to help in violent crimes and domestic abuse cases.
During Roma’s first week on the job, earlier this month, she was in court with Anderson County Sheriff’s Office deputies during a hearing for a man charged with killing a police dog.
“We’re all dog people,” said Lt. Josh Payne, who leads the Sheriff’s Office police dog unit. “Her presence was felt by us.”
Having a dog was a help for experienced law enforcement officers, Payne said, and would be even more valuable for the most vulnerable, especially young people who are already scared.
Shirley, the court clerk, said he has been through three cases in recent years where children have testified about sexual abuse.
“Roma would have made a lot of difference,” he said. “When they came to me with the concept, I thought it was a great idea. There are dogs who can sense when someone with diabetes is having a problem, there are dogs for wounded warriors. It seems like these animals are becoming more and more of a bonus, a way to help us. And in a courtroom, she’ll provide comfort and calm folks down.”
There are several court decisions, in other states, that uphold the logic of having dogs in the courtroom, Moore said. Roma is one of nearly 100 similar dogs in 28 states that work for prosecutors, child advocacy centers and even the FBI.
It took a year of research and effort to get Roma, Moore said.
She had to check laws and enter a lengthy process to get the dog.
The only time Roma needs to get permission on paper is for trials, when defense attorneys have the opportunity to object to a dog as a possible distraction or problem for jurors.
It shouldn’t be a problem, Adams said, because Roma would likely just sit in a box with children or others who testify. Jurors may not even be able to see the dog during the trial.
No taxpayer money has been or will be used for Roma, Adams said.
The dog and training were donated and any money used to support Roma will come from other sources, primarily drug forfeiture money, the solicitor said.
The dog does not belong to Moore or the solicitor’s office. With $50,000 worth of breeding and training, Roma belongs to Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that has trained 57 of the 95 courthouse and similar dogs. After a career of about eight to 10 years, Roma will be able to retire with Moore.
The organization trains dogs for rehabilitation therapy and assisting people with disabilities as well as dogs like Roma, who are called facility dogs.
They are not the same as service dogs who assist people with disabilities. Moore can’t go into restaurants with Roma, but they are both highly trained types of dogs.
Moore had to pass phone and in-person interviews, submitting photos of her home and the courtrooms before she could be considered as a handler.
“We learn a lot about our handlers,” said Martha Johnson, a spokeswoman for the regional center in Florida, where Roma and Moore were matched. “And we certainly know a lot about our dogs.”
Roma was bred in California, went through some training there and additional training in Florida.
Johnson said she knows at least 40 commands, including “get,” “open,” and “sit.”
Roma’s personality, very laid-back and relaxed, made her a great candidate to be a facility dog, Johnson said. Each dog stands out for different tasks. Some can turn book pages really well or can play tetherball with their muzzle.
Roma’s aptitude is wearing costumes, a talent she learned to help with rehabilitation motor skills.
“She’ll wear wigs and dresses,” Moore said. “I’ve got reindeer antlers I’ll be putting on her for Christmas.”
When Halloween comes around again next year, Roma will be a magician dog.
“She be,” Moore said, giggling, “a labracadabrador.”
Roma gets to relax, get dressed in costumes and eat treats when she’s not wearing that vest.
“She’s trained to work as long as the vest is on,” Moore said. “She’s first and foremost a working dog, her temperament is going to help our victims. When our victims are more comfortable, that helps us.”