at Millas accident trial, dogs soothe testifying victims

A teenager is standing at the bar, to testify. The story is painful. She pauses, lowers her head and gazes for a moment at Ouchi, a handsome three-and-a-half-year-old golden retriever. She caresses it, takes a deep breath, then resumes her story. The scene takes place at the Marseille criminal court, for the trial of the Millas accident. On December 14, 2017, the collision between a school car carrying college students and a TER train killed six people and injured 17 in the Pyrénées-Orientales.

Five years after a tragedy that moved the whole of France, only one person is in the dock: Nadine Oliveira, the bus driver, now 53, on trial for manslaughter. And for this trial, two legal assistance dogs were dispatched to the scene by victim support associations to accompany the actors in this trial: Rancho, a black Labrador, and Ouchi, a golden retriever.

These dogs are chosen because they are particularly empatheticexplains Aurore Bourcereau, the director of the association France Victimesthey feel the emotions, so they connect more quickly with the people with whom they feel there is a need.“Imported from the United States, the concept has existed in France since 2018, and we have seen these legal aid dogs during recent trials, in Strasbourg, Cahors or Lyon.

Most often, at the trial of the Millas disaster, dogs are called in at the request of the court to accompany young victims. But Nadine Oliveira also benefits from the help of the dog: “This is a first in France, the legal assistance dog which assists the defendant, notes Aurore Bourcereau. The dog is at her feet, and when he feels that she is getting emotional, he approaches, he puts his head down and he sees if she needs him or not, she caresses him… And when he feels that she needs it a little less, he returns to sit in front of her.

We feel that people are de-stressing. And they tell us afterwards: it makes them feel good.

Aurore Bourcereau

France Victims

Sylvain, the father of one of the young survivors, agrees: “It’s a very good idea because it helps support children, in particular. Having a pet like a dog can be reassuring.“His lawyer, Stephanie Keita, was more skeptical:”We, as lawyers, are in a way – and I’m not saying this pejoratively – the ‘dogs’ of our clients, since we’re on the side, we assist them. So I was a bit skeptical at first.“But she’s changing her mind:”I saw it through this trial: the animal brings a little more warmth, humanity, speech is a little freer for these children too. She cites in particular the case of a little girl who touched the dog to succeed in overcoming her sobs.

For the moment, there are four legal assistance dogs in France, but two additional animals should join them by the end of 2022.

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