Even with her best friend at her side, Jenette Alen could not shake the nervousness she felt as she walked into the Miami-Dade Children’s Courthouse the morning of June 30. The judge was going to determine whether Alen, 19, would graduate from drug court the following week, based on her progress.
Uneasy about the judge’s decision, Alen and her friend took the stairs up to the waiting area outside of the courtroom, only to find a thigh-high ginger-colored dog wagging her tail and wearing a vest that said, “Please ask to pet me.”
Alen and her best friend went to the dog and simultaneously cheered when the Labrador mix, Ginger, rolled over on her back so that the girls could rub her stomach. Alen, who had been going to drug court for a year, had never seen a dog in the courthouse, but said that she was glad Ginger was there that day because the dog helped alleviate her anxiety.
“I felt like, ‘I’m going to be OK, Ginger’s here,’ ” she recalled. “A dog in the courthouse makes it feel … less scary or frightening.”
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The Miami-Dade drug court is a diversion and treatment program for drug offenders to avoid prosecution.
Ginger is a part of Paws in the Court, a program that began in 2014 in conjunction with the Humane Society of Greater Miami, in which trained “therapy dogs” come to the children’s courthouse to provide emotional relief.
Unlike service dogs, which are trained to serve a specific individual who has a particular disability, therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort for anyone experiencing distress.
The state passed a law that went into effect on July 1 allowing therapy dogs in all courts throughout the state. The law was sponsored by state Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican, and Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat. Moskowitz said he has been involved in other efforts to improve animal welfare.
Before the law was passed, therapy dogs had limited access to a few courts throughout the state, including Miami-Dade Children’s Court, and were allowed only at trials that involved a sexual offense.
Now therapy dogs will be allowed into any proceeding that involves child abuse, abandonment, or neglect throughout the state.
Paws in the Court and courthouse administrators hope the new law will encourage more dog-handlers to volunteer for the program, as well as foster greater use of therapy dogs in children’s courts and in courthouses throughout the state.
“I think the law validates how useful the program can be,” said Mary Woolley-Larrea, Miami-Dade court operations director. “I’m hoping that it will just make it easier for the process, because sometimes people have fears with having dogs in courthouses, but the training that the handlers and the dogs have is amazing.”
One judge admitted that she thought that a dog would be disruptive to her courtroom, until she witnessed how well trained the dogs were and the impact they had on the children.
“I don’t understand how the dog never had to go to the bathroom, the dog never whined, it never barked, it was just there,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia, associate administrative juvenile judge and head of the county’s human trafficking court. “It put its little head on the table and just kind of looked at me more respectful than the parents.”
In order to be a part of Paws in the Court, dogs need to receive certification from the Canine Good Citizen program, where they go through extensive training in obedience and discipline. They also need to have completed 50 visits to a recognized therapy-dog facility, which includes certain schools, hospitals and nursing homes.
The dog handlers, who are unpaid volunteers, also go through a lengthy process, which includes registering as a volunteer at the Humane Society, going to orientation, completing a background check, filling out a Paws in the Court application, and completing court conduct and confidentiality training.
The training is necessary for sensitive situations that often arise in court. Sampedro-Iglesia said that the first trial she had a therapy dog sit through was a case involving a girl aged 12 or 13 who had to testify against her stepfather, who had sexually abused her.
“It was very interesting to see that as the testimony got worse, she would play more with the dog,” she said. “Some of the questions were very difficult because obviously the stepfather was denying everything. You could tell that the dog was like her security blanket.”
After that experience, the judge said that she would definitely have a therapy dog sit through a trial again and encourage other judges to do so as well.
“I’ve had her in court before for very short hearings and never with the presence of the stepfather there,” Sampedro-Iglesia said about the girl. “But she has been angry and non-cooperative. With the dogs, it was a different little girl.”
The judge said she thinks the therapy works because the dogs are cute, non-threatening and approach the children in a comforting way.
“Having a dog around, you can literally just tell them anything, and I feel like they understand you in a way,” said Alen, the teenager in drug court. “The feedback they give you is cute and it’s there to comfort you, so it’s kind of motivating in a way.”
Alen said that because of Ginger, she went into the courtroom in a positive mood. And she got the news that she would graduate from drug court.
By the time Alen received the news, Ginger was several floors below, staring into the eyes of a seemingly shy toddler wearing a hot pink dress and sitting at the edge of a long white bench in a hallway lined with courtrooms.
“Do you like dogs?” asked Fred Sake, Ginger’s handler from a few feet away, as he does with all children before he approaches them with the dog.
The girl nodded shyly, not taking her eyes off of Ginger. As the dog approached her, she cocked her head to the side with a wide grin. A moment later the dog and the toddler, who were the same height, embraced each other.