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May 1, 2017
Bill expands use of dogs in judicial proceedings

As a way to reduce trauma and facilitate testimony, judges would be able to allow children in cases involving abuse and neglect and intellectually disabled persons to have therapy dogs and facility dogs present for court proceedings.

The Legislature passed HB 151 by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, and Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, April 6. The bill is on the way to Gov. Rick Scott.

 Chuck Mitchell, an Animal Therapy Program volunteer Rep. Brodeur said it was an easy decision to sponsor the measure after seeing evidence that therapy animals and facility dogs had measureable clinical benefits, such as reducing stress hormones and blood pressure.

“Having the dogs available for kids creates a more trauma-sensitive courtroom, which not only helps people who have experienced traumatic things, but enables victims and witnesses to better recollect facts and recount them to judges. Everybody wins,” Brodeur said.

Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Guardian ad Litem Program, agreed.

“When we started working on this bill, I immediately said we should call it ‘Justice’s Best Friend Act,’ because if you are a judge, or a GAL, or a victim advocate, you want a child to be able to tell his or her story without feeling intimidated,” Abramowitz said. “Therapy dogs and facility dogs help you do that. They help bring out the truth, which brings about justice.”

Abramowitz said the legislation was necessary to encourage the expansion of existing therapy dog programs and to specifically authorize the use of facility dogs, which are dogs bred and trained to provide unobtrusive emotional support to children and adults in facility settings.

Sen. Montford also recognized the value of having a dog to comfort victims and witnesses.

“It is an honor to sponsor this legislation,” he said. “As a state, we are committed to providing every tool possible to offer comfort and healing for the children in our court system.”

Montford’s district contains one of the largest therapy dog programs in the country, Tallahassee Memorial Hospital’s Animal Therapy Program. Representatives of the TMH Program routinely brought therapy dogs to the legislative committee meetings to demonstrate their positive impact. Chuck Mitchell, an Animal Therapy Program volunteer and manager of the Second Circuit’s Courthouse Therapy Dog Program, explained why he believes the therapy dogs were so important: “I feel like the best way to describe it is that we help children find their voices; when things are too sad, or too hard, or too scary to say aloud to an adult, children somehow manage to connect with the dog and tell their story.”

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Broward, co-sponsored the bill. Book is CEO of Lauren’s Kids, an organization whose mission is to prevent sexual abuse through education and awareness, and to help survivors heal with guidance and support.

“Every year in Florida, tens of thousands of children become victims of abuse,” she said. “When victims are able to tell their stories on the stand, they can take the first step toward healing into thriving survivors. We’ve seen how courtroom therapy dogs can be a lifeline for child victims: offering comfort during a really difficult and scary time for kids who have already suffered a great deal. When this good bill becomes law, more children – and adults with intellectual disabilities – will be able to receive comfort in the courtroom from these special animals, and provide difference-making testimony against their abuser.”

[Revised: 11-30-2017]