(LANSING, Mich.) — Outside the Michigan courtroom where all told 144 victim impact statements will be read by a victim or on a victim’s behalf when the sentencing for former Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar is complete, there sits a comforting face.
Preston, a therapy dog, sits outside the Ingram County Circuit Court in Lansing and waits to be able to comfort the victims of Nassar’s sexual abuse.
“Having Preston here has just been a joy,” said Samantha Ursch, 29, who testified last week about abuse by Nassar in 2011 while she was a gymnast at Central Michigan University. “He really seeks out wanting to comfort people.”
Ursch uprooted herself from her home in Florida to be in the courtroom each day of Nassar’s sentencing hearing, which began Jan. 16.
“He is a comfort, especially for a lot of us that have pets at home,” she said. “I’m away from my two dogs so having him here has been amazing and comforting.”
Preston, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever, normally sits next to victims of child sexual abuse at the witness stand when they are called to testify in court.
The public interest in the sentencing of Nassar, accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women and girls, is so high that, due to the crowded courtroom and abundance of victims, Preston sits outside the courtroom.
The women speaking in front of Nassar have been at times angry, at times tearful and at times so passionate their remarks have drawn applause from those in the courtroom. Aly Raisman, one of the multiple Olympic gymnasts who say they were molested by Nassar, delivered searing remarks in court last week.
Nassar faces a sentence of 40 to 125 years when Judge Rosemarie Aquilina eventually rules on his punishment. Angela Povilaitis, the assistant attorney general of Michigan, told Aquilina at the start of court on Monday that 99 victims had already spoken or had their statements read.
Nassar pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual misconduct in Ingham County last year. He has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison after pleading guilty to federal child pornography charges. He also faces sentencing on three other counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Eaton County at the end of this month.
“Preston is providing a lot of unconditional love and comfort to some people who really need it right now,” said Alex Brace, executive director of Small Talk Children’s Assessment Center. “It’s very much about healing and providing hope to survivors of sexual assault and physical abuse.”
Preston began his career as a therapy dog in September 2016 at Small Talk Children’s Assessment Center in Lansing.
Small Talk is a children’s advocacy center where children go for a forensic interview — to being the process of an investigation — if there has been a report of child abuse or sexual abuse.
The children can then return to Small Talk, a nonprofit organization, for free counseling sessions.
The organization said it has seen more children return for counseling since it introduced Preston. The dog sits with children before and after the forensic interview and is also a familiar face if they are called to court.
“Having Preston here is a really unique opportunity to help people heal from something that is really difficult,” said Brace. “He helps them feel comfortable and calm when they’re coming in to talk about subject matter that is difficult for anyone to talk about, let alone a child.”
Ashley Vance, Preston’s handler, signals to him that it is time to step into his role as a therapy dog when she puts his signature blue bandana around his neck each morning.
“As soon as we get to work in the morning I sit him down and put his bandana on and he’s ready to get work,” said Vance, who will substitute Preston’s bandana for a tie when he appears in court.
Preston has authority to go in any courtroom in Ingham County, with the request for his presence being made by the family or prosecutors, according to Vance. In the case of the Nassar sentencing hearing, Vance said the state’s attorney general’s office reached out to Small Talk to bring Preston to the courtroom.
“This is the first time we’ve taken the approach of being in the hallway,” Vance said of the high-profile Nassar case. “It’s a really nice break for people to come out and have that comfort and support.”
She added, “I’ve seen people just kind of swarming him. [He offers] silent, nonjudgmental support and it’s just calming.”
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