Canine Companions

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Indiana Court Times on 5/30/2017

Courthouse dogs join CASA programs to help kids in court

Frankie is held by a young girl during a photo session. Frankie assists Delaware County CASA staff members Ashley Soldaat and Karen Zabel.

The Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program in Delaware County just added a new four-legged member to its staff. Frankie, a two-year old female black lab, started her job at the CASA program in April. Frankie is one of only two dogs in Indiana specifically trained to help ease the fears of children in courtrooms.

Going to court is stressful for anyone, but it is especially difficult for children who have been victims of abuse or neglect. The Courthouse Dog Program helps reduce stress and anxiety of children involved with the legal system. Frankie sits with children who can pet and hug him for extra comfort and hopefully leave with a positive memory of their courtroom experience.

Courthouse facility dogs undergo extensive training and screening and must graduate from an accredited assistance dog organization. Frankie’s handlers, the Delaware County CASA Director Ashley Soldaat and staff member Karen Zabel, attended a week of intensive training before they could be certified as a working team.

After a 45-day transition period, Frankie began attending Child in Need of Services (CHINS) and juvenile delinquency proceedings. Zabel noticed an immediate impact in delinquency court. One child, who had a history of acting up both in and out of court, was completely different in court when he sat with Frankie. To almost everyone’s surprise, instead of yelling and cussing, he was calm and pleasant. Another child, whose parents failed to show up for court, sat with Frankie who provided support and comfort.

Frankie primarily attends juvenile court proceedings with older children, but soon will also be with younger children at the child advocacy center and in other types of cases. Delaware Circuit Court #2 Judge Kim Dowling, an early supporter of the program, reports that attorneys are filing motions asking for Frankie to be able to sit with their clients.

Delaware County Juvenile Magistrate Amanda Yonally said that Frankie has “already proven herself as a tremendous asset in assisting children who seem to feel a little more empowered and a little less afraid when she is by their side. Frankie not only brings a sense of peace and calm to the courtroom, but some much-needed comic relief when she occasionally falls asleep and snores!”

Children can connect with a dog in a way they can’t always connect with a person, and it gives them the courage to tell their story. Studies show that dogs provide victims with a sense of calm, security, and strength. They help decrease blood pressure and heart rate, reduce stress hormones, reduce feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression, and provide positive effects on social communication.

Monroe County CASA recently added Jordy, a male yellow lab, trained by the Indiana Canine Assistant Network, or ICAN. Jordy can follow 37 commands from his handler Tia Arthur, including picking up items, closing doors and drawers, and giving hugs. Jordy makes regular visits to the Youth Center in Bloomington where kids get the opportunity to groom, nurture, and build a bond with him.

Arthur said that Jordy recently made a big difference in the life of a teen who was transgender. The teen was depressed and suicidal, and every time he had to discuss his gender, he would become extremely nervous. Jordy sat with him during his testimony in a recent court hearing. When he had to speak, he leaned down to pet Jordy. When the hearing was over, the teen whispered to Jordy: “See you at the next hearing!” Judge Galvin, Monroe County Juvenile Judge is already a big fan: “You can see everyone relax when Jordy is in the courtroom. Jordy lowers the stress level for everyone there, including myself.”

For more information on how to start a Courthouse Dog Program, go to: www.courthousedogs.org

Therapy Dogs in Indiana Courts and at JLAP

Several courts in Indiana also use therapy dogs. Therapy dogs are personal pets who have undergone training with their owner, and then evaluated and registered by a local or national therapy dog organization. Therapy dogs do not undergo the extensive training that is required to become a certified courthouse facility dog. Therapy dogs can also help reduce stress.

Tippecanoe County CASA recently started bringing a therapy dog to court. CASA Program Director, Coleen Conner, observed noticeable changes in children’s behavior. “It’s a win-win because court can be stressful for everybody involved.”

Clark County also has a therapy dog, a mini Australian/Labradoodle named Bibble. He has already helped one victim in a child molestation case. The young girl was very nervous and upset about testifying. When Bibble came in the room, she was calm, stopped crying, and successfully testified in a difficult case.

The Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program (JLAP) also uses therapy dogs. When JLAP exhibits at the law schools and other events, people are hesitant to approach their table because of a perceived stigma regarding mental health and addiction.

However, when JLAP brings a therapy dog with them, people are more comfortable approaching, and their table is crowded with visitors. Deputy Director Loretta Oleksy’s dog, Kirby, often attends events with her and was such a help to one JLAP participant that she plans to adopt and train a therapy dog of her own.