Justice’s Best Friend

‘Justice’s Best Friend’

GAL wants to expand law to allow dogs in dependency court and for adults with mental disabilities

floridabar.org |

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

In Tallahassee, Circuit Judge James Hankinson swore in 13 dogs as officers of the court, and, with tails wagging, their paws were covered in ink to officially “sign” the oath.

In Jacksonville, Judge David Gooding swore in four dogs as canine guardians ad litem, and allowed them in the dependency courtroom to help abused, abandoned, or neglected children testify.

In Tampa, a guardian ad litem volunteer brings Tibet, her yellow Lab-golden retriever mix to court, and he sits at the feet of a girl testifying about her abuse. Tibet has also been with children undergoing traumatic abuse and sexual assault exams.

Using trained therapy dogs in court is not new in Florida. For the past decade, there has been growing acceptance, and therapy dogs are used in court in some circuits, but not in others. There has been a Florida law on the books for five years that allows therapy dogs to go into criminal court to help children who are victims of sexual abuse.

But what is new is an effort spearheaded by Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program, to reflect the current practice and to encourage therapy dogs in courts statewide.

“Chief judges and dependency judges realize it’s a good thing for kids. It’s all about reducing trauma. Anything we can do to let people know this is OK, because in some circuits it’s not happening,” Abramowitz said. “Why should these kids not have the ability to get through their testimony better?”

The GAL program believes the law should be amended to:

• Include children in abuse, abandonment, and neglect proceedings;

• Identify adults with intellectual disabilities who could use dogs in court;

• Add “facility dogs” to the statute. Facility dogs were originally bred to be highly trained service dogs, such as seeing-eye dogs, but did not work out for that role, perhaps because they were not sturdy enough to hold someone’s weight if their master fell, or they were a little too social.

Now, the proposed legislation to amend F.S. §92.55 is in bill drafting and potential sponsors are being lined up. The original bill in 2011 passed 132 to 0. There is no cost to the state, Abramowitz said, and the law does not mandate the practice, but makes it clear it is permissible.

“I don’t know anyone against this,”Abramowitz said. “The act will be called ‘Justice’s Best Friend.’”

Chuck Mitchell of Tallahassee is helping lobby for the bill. He knows all about using Rikki, his 11-year-old golden retriever mix, to help get the truth out of traumatized witnesses.

A retired commercial building contractor, Mitchell reluctantly adopted Rikki, after she was scooped out of Lake Pontchartrain as an 8-week-old puppy after Hurricane Katrine blew through New Orleans, and the word was spread that many rescued dogs needed homes.

Rikki showed remarkable empathy by being gentle to a neighbor with Parkinson’s disease. Trained to go to hospitals, courthouses, and schools, Rikki has had more than 25,000 interactions in her long therapy career, and she recently retired to become a “couch potato.”

Mitchell has becoming a driving force behind the expansion of Animal Assisted Therapy nationally. (Learn more by reading Encounters With RikkiFrom Hurricane Katrina Rescue to Exceptional Therapy Dog, by Julie Strauss Bettinger, who gives 20 percent of royalties to the Tallahassee Memorial Foundation to benefit the hospital’s Animal Therapy Program.)

Mitchell tells the poignant story of a 7-year-old girl who had been brutally sexually abused by a day-care worker when she was 4. At first, she was able to tell only a little of what had happened to her mother and in front of a video camera, but then completely shut down. Months and then three years had gone by.

Mitchell and Rikki were called to the courthouse, where they sat on the floor with the little girl, who fed Rikki her treats and stroked her silky golden fur. The prosecutor leaned over and gently asked, “Do you know what happened between you and Mr. _____?” Without looking up, the girl kept petting Rikki and began telling new details. She was able to make a statement, Mitchell said, and law enforcement had enough to arrest the man.

When it came time to give a deposition, the girl had her hand on Rikki’s leash and they walked down the courthouse hallway. Mitchell, who tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, actually curled up under the table, holding Rikki’s leash and feeding her carrots. Rikki rested her head on the lap of the little girl, who cried into the dog’s fur and spilled out her testimony.

The new law does not specify dogs, but says therapy animals. But dogs have won the spotlight in reducing trauma in courthouse settings.

“For any of us who have had a dog or a cat growing up, we know that at the end of a bad day, you put that cat in your lap or lay down on the floor with that dog, you are going to feel better,” Mitchell said. “It’s because petting a dog, your blood pressure goes down. Your breathing rate goes down. Your cortisol, stress levels drop. Your oxytocin levels go up. There are chemical reasons why touching these great animals is a big deal.

“In this high-tech, low-touch world, this is the ultimate low-tech, high-touch solution to all of our anxieties,” Mitchell said. “Any of these great dogs that can do something for people, they are harnessing the power of love.”