Comfort Only a Canine Companion Can Provide: An Interview with Stephanie Perkins
Testifying in court is often nerve-wracking and distressing for people. However, when a child victim is asked to testify about a sexual abuse case, a whole new level of anxiety is present. Stephanie Perkins of Courthouse Therapy Dogs of the Second Judicial Circuit of Florida believes that a therapy dog is the perfect therapeutic aid for a child during this traumatic time in his or her life.
The Courthouse Therapy Dogs program is one of the animal therapy services sponsored by Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare and offered through Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy, a program with 145 animal therapy teams visiting 60 different facilities in the Big Bend area of Florida. Perkins first became involved with Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy in 2001 when she began volunteering in the organization with her rescue dog. In 2002, she took a part-time position as Program Coordinator and continues to devote her time and service to the program as the current Program Manager.
While the Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy program has been in existence since 1985, the Courthouse Therapy Dogs portion of the program began in 2007. One of the animal therapy volunteers worked in court administration and helped the program realize the need for therapy animals in the court system. Additionally, the success of similar programs in other areas inspired Perkins, her colleagues, and volunteers to bring a much needed service to their community.
“We read about service dogs going into Central Florida courts and thought why can’t we do that with therapy dogs too?” said Perkins.
Today, the State Attorney’s Office has partnered with the Office of Court Administration to offer the Courthouse Therapy Dogs program which serves the entire Second Judicial Circuit of Florida and includes volunteer therapy dog teams from the Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy program.
The Therapy Teams
“Out of the 145 [Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy] teams, only a select group is appropriate for service in the Courthouse Therapy Dogs program,” said Perkins
Prior to any therapy work, the dogs are screened to ensure that they are calm, well-mannered, and proficient in basic obedience. The dog and handler then participate in a five-week class that includes training, role-playing opportunities, and guidance on how to handle a variety of situations that may be encountered during therapy work. At the conclusion of the class, the team is evaluated through Pet Partners and, if they successfully complete the evaluation, registered as a Pet Partners therapy team. Before visiting any location as a therapy team, the dog and handler must do a shadow visit to become familiar with the facility. Furthermore, the handler may choose to receive a mentor who can answer any questions and serve as a resource during the early stages of therapy work.
In addition to meeting all of the requirements of any therapy animal, Perkins emphasizes that therapy dogs that are going to work in the courtroom should be tested around children. Children are the main beneficiaries of the therapeutic services offered by courthouse dogs and are often different from adults in the ways they look at, behave around, and interact with animals. Also, when people are in court, they are commonly very emotional and tense, and the therapy dog needs to remain comfortable and good-natured while interacting with people in such a state.
While the dog provides the therapy during a court case, the handler must also make a large commitment when volunteering with the Courthouse Therapy Dogs program. Perkins said that it can be difficult to find volunteers since court sessions are always held during the workday, requests for therapy dogs can occur at the last minute, and teams often must spend the whole day at the courthouse. However, the teams who are able to meet the requirements and provide support to victims have found the experience to be extremely rewarding.
Providing Support Through the Criminal Justice System
Perkins and the other individuals involved with the Courthouse Therapy Dogs program spearheaded the effort to create the Florida legislation that allows therapy dogs in the courtroom under certain circumstances. In 2011, Florida became the first state to pass such legislation, and in 2014, legislators revised the law to allow therapy dogs in the courtroom during cases involving victims who were under the age of 16 at the time of the crime and victims who are intellectually disabled or any victims or witnesses whom the judge determines are vulnerable. As of 2015, the Courthouse Therapy Dogs program has provided therapy dog teams for more than 100 events that involve mostly children and some adults in the criminal courts.
In order to spread the word about this service, the program coordinates with the State Attorney’s Office and with the people who work in the courthouses.
“We’ve made sure that everyone in the courthouses knows about us and can share about our services,” said Perkins.
Brochures outlining the program are provided to victims or their parents and allow the children to decide if they would like a canine companion to accompany them throughout the legal process. If the child would like to take advantage of the therapy dog service, they are paired with a therapy dog team at no cost.
In order to keep the use of therapy dogs from being prejudicial, the therapy team rarely goes into the witness box with a victim. Instead, the team first meets the victim during deposition or early on in the process in order to build rapport. On the day of the trial, the team shows up early to meet with the victim and walk with him or her into the courtroom. When the therapy dog team and victim enter the courtroom, the jury is on recess, as to avoid questioning from the jurists. The therapy team walks the victim up to the witness box and waits for him or her to get situated and comfortable. Once the victim is prepared, the handler and dog take a seat in the back of courtroom so as to not attract any attention from the jury. When the child looks out from the witness box, they can see the handlers face in the audience and know that the dog is there too which provides comfort and reassurance.
“Sometimes kids say they couldn’t have done this if it weren’t for the dog,” said Perkins.
The Courthouse Therapy Dogs are most often used for sexual abuse cases in which children are traumatized. The animal therapy teams help reduce anxiety, provide the child with a non-human friend to talk to, hug, and trust, and, essentially, calm the victim so that he or she can provide an accurate testimony.
Spreading Therapy throughout the Nation’s Courts
Perkins has been amazed by how open parents are to letting their child utilize a therapy animal, but she believes this is because of the healing that parents desire for their child after he or she has been the victim of a scarring crime.
“Instead of hating court, [the child] looks forward to it,” said Perkins. “We start them on the healing path.”
Currently, there is a therapy dog program offered in at least one courthouse per state. The goal of Courthouse Therapy Dogs is to encourage legislation across the country that allows for the use of therapy animals to be widespread in the judicial system. They currently offer a large number of resources for others who are working to establish programs similar to Courthouse Therapy Dogs. On their website, they offer videos, a message from the State Attorney for the Florida Second Circuit, and news stories in hopes of inspiring other therapy animal programs to branch out and serve in the court system.
“There is no reason we can’t use the thousands of volunteer teams nationwide to make it easier for victims in court,” said Perkins.
To learn more about Courthouse Therapy Dogs, visit their website.