ST PAUL, Minnesota — There's a new employee at the Ramsey County Attorney's Office that doesn't need a desk, only a dog bed. Norie is a 2-year-old golden retriever who has been working at the attorney's office for the past month as a facility dog.
Her sole purpose is to provide companionship to adults and kids who are victims and witnesses to crime, helping ease the stress that comes with the court process.
"The work that is presented to us, often times, can be very sad, tragic and very stressful. And often times when we have an adversarial court process, we rely very heavily on witnesses and victims to come forward to tell their story," said John Choi, Ramsey County attorney.
Choi said they worked more than four years to bring a facility dog into their office. The nonprofit Helping Paws trained and placed Norie.
"Norie has all of the skills to work for somebody with a physical disability but because of who Norie is and her wonderful temperament, we thought that this would be a really good match for her," said Sue Kliewer, Helping Paws client services coordinator and instructor.
Norie is a facility dog which is different than a therapy or service dog.
"Service dogs are assigned to work with one person and help them with their disability. A facility dog can have several handlers," explained Tami McConkey, RCAO director of victim/witness division.
Bill Kubes, a RCAO victim/witness advocate, is Norie's handler. Norie lives with Kubes and his family; she arrives and leaves work with Kubes. Since joining the team about a month ago, Norie has already been in about a dozen meetings comforting everyone from a six-year-old victim to an older couple who experienced an assault.
"Every one of my victims after these meetings always say, 'Is Norie available for my trial? Or if there's any meetings or anything in the future, could she be there with us?'... The effect that she has is just amazing," Kubes said.
For now, Norie is in the office but Choi said they hope to bring her into the courtroom, as well.
Defense attorneys in the past have argued that having a dog in the courtroom can be distracting or create sympathy from the jury. McConkey said there are ways to address the dog's visibility, including having the dog sit at the witness' feet where the jury can't see him/her.
"We're hoping to bring her in sentencing hearings when victims have a right to address the court... or even just a pre-trial hearing. Having a dog there while the hearing goes on and the victim is there kind of brings some comfort too. There are a lot of options. We will probably try to ease into it, getting permission as we go," McConkey said.
According to Courthouse Dogs Foundation, there are more than 200 facility dogs, like Norie, across the country. Choi said, as far as he knows, Norie's full-time role as a courthouse dog is a first for Minnesota. However, places like the Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center, have assistance dogs.
The attorney's office has budgeted $8,000 a year to care for Norie.
Kubes added, "Just the calming aspect of Norie is just amazing."