Lending a Paw
Jen Novoselsky helps rehabilitate court case dogs
Published in 2020 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine on January 30, 2020
Jen Novoselsky was trying to decompress.
“I was working 24/7 and was looking for something to do that would encourage me to take a break and clear my head for a couple hours a week,” says Novoselsky, a partner at Reyes Kurson focusing on complex commercial and financial litigation.
“I had, at the time, an absolutely wonderful dog named Alma. She was a pit mix, and people had a lot of reactions to her because of that, even though she was a big sweetheart,” she says. “I had rescued her, so I was aware of rescue dogs and I was trying to think of a way to volunteer.”
Inspired after a friend pointed out that she was most relaxed when hanging out with Alma, Novoselsky discovered Safe Humane Chicago. That was almost 10 years ago, and she’s been volunteering there on Saturdays ever since.
Safe Humane Chicago is the first organization in the country that works to assess, socialize and train “court case dogs”—canines that are associated with criminal cases against their owners—so that they may find permanent homes. A 501c3 founded in 2007, the organization’s mission, as Novoselsky describes it, is to create safe and humane communities by inspiring positive relationships between people and animals.
“There are all sorts of different things that animals can get seized for,” she says. “Cases range from inadequate shelter all the way up to dogfighting or torture. Technically under the law, [the dogs are] property. They’re evidence—the same way that when someone is selling cocaine, law enforcement takes the cocaine, they wrap it up and seal it in the evidence locker until the trial is over. The problem for dogs is that, if the trial takes three years, the dogs are in a cage with no interaction because you can’t mess with the evidence. Even if they did nothing wrong, by the time they’ve spent three years in a cage, they’re probably not safe anymore.”
That’s where SHC comes in. The organization works with the state’s attorneys, the police responsible for making the arrest and documenting the evidence, animal care and control, and judges to try to get the defendant to relinquish ownership of the dog.
“The vast majority of defendants, once they’re charged, do agree to relinquish ownership,” Novoselsky says. “Which, for us, is fantastic, as it means we can get in there right away and start evaluating [the dogs]. We work to transfer them to rescues who in turn put them into adoptive homes.”
Before the program, “evidence dogs” had only a 2% chance of making it out of the shelter alive, says Novoselsky. “Now we are at over 94%.”
SHC has rescued and rehomed 1,335 court case dogs and decreased the average length of impoundment from 256 days to 40.
Over the course of her near-decade volunteering for the organization, Novoselsky has trained and prepped other volunteer lawyers and law students and maintained contact with the state’s attorneys and courts advocates who monitor the proceedings to keep the SHC team up-to-date. And nothing beats the on-the-ground volunteering and playing with the pups.
“Are there moments when it’s hard? Yeah,” says Novoselsky, “Especially when you’re thinking, ‘How could anyone do this to a dog?’ But that is so heavily offset by how good you feel and how much these dogs are going to give back to you.”
One of the most memorable dogs she worked with was named Ike. “His owner was arrested for dogfighting, and Ike was really stressed out and scared,” she says. “We were not particularly optimistic, but after working with him for a while, he turned out to be a huge sweetheart. He was rescued and now lives, I believe, in Iowa. His best friend is a seven-pound kitten and a human sister that is now 5. So a dog that was a picture of being chained outside for dogfighting is now a little girl’s best friend and has a kitten that swats him in the nose. He surprised even us.”