One aspect of working cases that may surprise volunteer guardians ad litem is the use of animals to comfort children in court.
Founded in 2007, the Second Judicial Circuit's Pet Therapy in Courts Program is one of the largest in the country and provides a successful model to court systems nationwide and other judicial circuits in Florida, half of which currently have similar programs.
Trained by Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy, Second Judicial Circuit dog therapy teams provide support to children who are required to attend and/or testify at dependency hearings and other court proceedings.
"The goal of the program is to have the dogs provide comfort to reduce the victim's anxiety, resulting in more accurate testimony," says Susan Wilson, the program's founder and coordinator.
Dog therapy teams have been used successfully in over sixty criminal cases and over 125 dependency dockets. Thirteen additional teams were added in 2013, bringing to twenty the number of teams working in Franklin, Gadsden, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty and Wakulla counties.
What does all of this mean for child witnesses? The Pet Therapy in Courts Program helps to…
- build rapport and trust with a child who is nervous, withdrawn and/or afraid;
- reduce a child's anxiety and stress, thereby allowing them better recall and focus; and
- put family members and guardians at ease, which helps a child before giving testimony.
To share the positive impact of therapeutic animals in the courts, the Pet Therapy in Courts Program recently produced a video and sent it to 2,500 state attorneys across the country along with a website and a list of local pet therapy teams that may be able to provide assistance.
"If we can help change [the] minds [of state attorneys] and help others begin their own programs, we can really make a difference," the Pet Therapy in Courts Program said in an email.