Animal Law Section partnership uses therapy dogs to help child victims navigate criminal and dependency proceedings
To most Florida lawyers, the Animal Law Section will forever be linked to the “puppy pit” and “goat yoga,” wildly popular demonstrations at the Annual Convention.
But leaders of The Florida Bar’s fastest growing contingent want to remind colleagues that the Animal Law Section has a serious side.
A prime example: The section partners with Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare’s animal therapy program, considered the first in the state and possibly the nation, to use therapy dogs to help child victims navigate criminal and dependency proceedings.
“A lot of what people think of our section is the fun stuff that we do,” said immediate past Chair Gregg Riley Morton. “But I can’t think of anything more serious than child sexual assault.”
TMH animal therapy pioneers began working with former Second Judicial Circuit Chief Judge James C. Hankinson and former State Attorney Willie Meggs in 2005 to develop guidelines for allowing trained volunteers and their dogs to work with child victims.
Research has shown that the physical act of petting an animal triggers the release of brain chemicals that reduce stress and anxiety. Over the years, animal therapy has helped scores of traumatized children endure the stress of testifying or appearing in a judicial setting.
Hankinson and the defense bar had to be convinced that the use of animal therapy wouldn’t prejudice the defense, Morton said. Procedures had to be developed that would allow the victims to be comforted without risking a mistrial that would force the victim to endure more trauma.
TMH’s Animal Therapy Director Stephanie Perkins said her records show that since 2007, the program has worked 155 criminal cases, generating 325 unique visits, for such things as depositions, pre-trial meetings, and other interactions.
The program has 32 specially trained teams of dogs and handlers working throughout the six-county circuit, Perkins said.
And the TMH animal therapy program serves far more than forensic cases, with a wide array of volunteers and animals serving the hospital, its satellite facilities, and other people in need throughout the Big Bend.
“We have two dwarf miniature horses, and one of the dwarf minis is the world’s second-smallest horse,” Perkins said.
The Animal Law Section has paid a toy manufacturer to produce nearly 2,000 plush toys designed to resemble “Rikki,” a TMH animal therapy program pioneer and golden retriever who was rescued from Hurricane Katrina.
Rikki died in 2017, but his good works live on through the dolls, which are donated to hospital patients and therapy program clients, and through his human, Chuck Mitchell, who continues to volunteer in the TMH animal therapy program.
“We’re very proud of the program and we’re proud of being part of it, and it’s been a big part of what the Animal Law Section and Pets Ad Litem, the local charity, has done,” said Animal Law Section Chair Emeritus Ralph DeMeo.
Mitchell remains more dedicated than ever to animal therapy and helping abused and neglected children survive their trauma.
Mitchell recently described the case of an 8-year-old girl he calls “Anna” to protect her identity. Mitchell and his newest therapy dog, Sharon, a three-year-old golden retriever, were assigned to help “Anna” testify against a defendant facing capital sexual assault charges.
Mitchell and Sharon worked with prosecutors and victim advocates for a year, trying to get “Anna” to describe her ordeal, but with little success.
On the day of the trial, “Anna” clutched her Rikki doll tightly on the witness stand and occasionally used it to hide her face. “Anna” eventually found the courage to testify, Mitchell said.
The jury believed her and voted to convict, Mitchell said.
“But for the doll, I don’t think the child would have been able to do it, because the dog couldn’t shield the child the way she needed that to happen,” Mitchell said. “The good news is, to my knowledge, we’ve not been called in to work on a case where the child has not been able to find her voice and testify.”
In addition to supporting the pet therapy program, the Animal Law Section has been a strong public policy advocate, DeMeo said.
The section has advocated for a constitutional amendment to ban dog racing in Florida and for tougher criminal penalties for the killing of a police, fire, or search and rescue dog.
It has also supported proposals to increase the damages permitted in cases involving the death and injury of companion animals, and a measure that would allow the appointment of an advocate for the interests of an animal in certain court proceedings.
The section has also sponsored continuing judicial education courses, DeMeo said.