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Parents can feel desperate if they suspect a child is using drugs. And there's a whole industry out there, which gives parents options for finding out what kids are up to. That includes private businesses which bring in drug-sniffing dogs to search kids rooms - something that can put parents' minds at ease or confirm their worst fears. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports that industry comes with some concerns.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: At his kitchen table in a working-class neighborhood, not far from Boston, a father is shaking his head in exasperation. His 21-year-old daughter has been in trouble with the law and using drugs on and off for years.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I've had her in detox - I couldn't tell you how many times. She gets back with her friends, starts all over again.
SMITH: This man agreed to talk on the condition that neither he, nor his daughter, would be named, because she's on probation. And if she's caught using again, it would mean serious trouble. The dad thinks she is using, even though she denies it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You know, she's like, you know, nothing's going on. And no, I wouldn't do that and blah, blah, blah, blah. You know, you want to believe them. You know, that's your kid.
SMITH: And the dad says, you want to get your kid help. You don't just want to get her thrown in jail.
SMITH: It's why he hired Tom Robichaud, who shows up with his dog, Ben, in a black pickup that's unmarked except for the license plate, NARCK9.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello hello.
TOM ROBICHAUD: Hello Tom.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tom?
ROBICHAUD: I'm Tom. How are you?
SMITH: Robichaud, a former dog trainer, launched his business called Discrete Interventions six months ago, offering parents the tools of police without the risk of prosecution or prison.
ROBICHAUD: This is just a confidentiality thing. I don't say anything.
SMITH: Legally, Robichaud doesn't have to, but as he lays out the contract on the kitchen table, he explains that morally he might feel compelled in extreme cases.
ROBICHAUD: If by chance, my dog does come across, let's say a meth lab, a big amount of a narcotic, I have to call the police. I mean a suitcase - just letting you know.
SMITH: The dad nods and hands over $300 in cash. And Robichaud gets to work with his dog, who's been raring to go. The dog sniffs his way around a large basement, strewn with boxes, furniture, laundry and all kinds of junk. And suddenly, within seconds, he stops and sits.
ROBICHAUD: Good boy.
SMITH: Robichaud tosses him a squishy, denim toys as a reward.
ROBICHAUD: He hit on this table here and in that chair. I'm not going to go through it. You can.
SMITH: There's nothing in the table, Robichaud explains, a scent can linger months after drugs are removed. So the dad feels around in the recliner chair. Then inside a Velcro flap that covers the chairs mechanics...
ROBICHAUD: Oh, my God. What is that?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'd say cocaine. I would say...
ROBICHAUD: Coke or heroin.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Heroin. She's done.
SMITH: The amount of white powder in the sandwich bag is not enough to make Robichaud feel like he has to call the police. But more than enough to make dad want to do it himself.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: She's out of here. I've had enough of this.
ROBICHAUD: I don't blame you.
SMITH: The dad is as angry as he is sad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't want to see her go to jail, really. But if she has to, she has to.
SMITH: But slowly, the dad starts to soften.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I - you know, I don't want to get the police involved in stuff, you know, just yet.
SMITH: Instead, he says he'll use what he found as leverage to force his daughter into detox.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'll give her the benefit of another shot and see if she'll voluntarily go someplace.
SMITH: Robichaud never asks and dad doesn't say what he's going to do with the baggy. It's totally up to him. And that discretion is exactly why businesses like Robichaud's say they're being hired more often by parents nationwide.
ANNE WILLS: When we first launched business, it went basically viral overnight.
SMITH: Anne Wills was one of the first to get into the private drug-sniffing dog business a few years ago. She takes calls from schools, businesses and halfway houses, as well as landlords looking for evidence to evict a tenant and ex-husbands or wives digging for dirt they can use in divorce or custody cases. Recently, Wills said she was hired by a woman who smelled chemicals wafting over from, what she believed to be, a drug dealer's house next door. Wills' dog picked up on drug scent inside the woman's house and outside.
WILLS: The dog drew us from her yard straight over to their house. So she keyed in on the odor and followed it. And the dog hit all over their garage, all over the ground. The dog went crazy.
SMITH: Wills says she called police with the tip about the neighbor's garage.
WILLS: We don't like to trespass. We don't normally do it. But sometimes, if nobody's home and the dog wanders up there, the dog wanders up there.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I think this crosses a line. There are certainly things here to be concerned about.
SMITH: ACLU privacy expert, Jay Stanley, says anyone's privacy could be invaded like that. While the Constitution protects against unwarranted police searches, there's no such protection against nosy neighbors. And Stanley says the law has some catching up to do.
JAY STANLEY: There's a fundamental principle here that you don't intrude in that way on people's homes. And, you know, I don't think we want to go down the road to allowing open season for neighbors to spy on each other.
SMITH: Law enforcement officials have their own concerns. Jim Pasco of the National Fraternal Order of Police says what if a dog handler inadvertently walks into the middle of an ongoing criminal investigation, putting the whole thing, and possibly lives, at risk.
JIM PASCO: We don't seek this kind of assistance. We believe that some things are best left to police, to ensure, you know, the best possible result.
SMITH: Also, while private dog handlers don't have to report their findings to police, experts say they could be compelled to testify. But some prosecutors question whether any evidence from privately-trained dogs is reliable enough to hold up in court. There's no official national accreditation standard or license for private drug-sniffing dogs. And trainers range from well-established companies that certify police dogs to anyone who hangs out a shingle. So prosecutors are wary.
JOHN KIMBROUGH: We can't vouch for them. And when you have a private handler, you may not know anything about them.
SMITH: John Kimbrough's district attorney in Orange County, Texas, where a private, dog sniffing business is working in schools and private homes. The process is hardly foolproof, Kimbrough says. He hasn't seen it come to a test yet, but he says evidence from a privately-owned dog might not pass legal muster.
KIMBROUGH: That has to translate into probable cause to justify a search. That has to be ironclad. This isn't just some fishing expedition because the dog, you know, has got a demonstrated history of reliability.
ROBICHAUD: Good boy. You did your job today, yeah bud.
SMITH: Tom Robichaud and his dog were certified by the LaFollette K-9 Training Center in Missouri, which mostly trained police dogs but has seen a big spike in non-police customers. Robichaud says more regulation would better protect parents. He knows all too well how desperate they are. He lost his own brother to an overdose.
ROBICHAUD: Every time I go into a house, I see those parents like my parents - what they went through. It just destroyed my family.
ROBICHAUD: Hey, hey, hey, sit.
ROBICHAUD: I'm not Dr. Phil. And I'm not saying my service is going to get your kids to be the Walton kids. But on the other hand, I have hope that the kid will turn around.
SMITH: In order to help kids, Robichaud says, parents first need to know what's going on. And he is just one of many now offering to help them find out. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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