CASA therapy dogs lighten mood at Tippecanoe courthouse

Navigating the local court system is just one more traumatic experience for children who have been abused or neglected.

But one advocacy group believes a nearby therapy dog to pat or scratch could ease their stress and lighten their moods.

Tippecanoe County Court Appointed Special Advocates, who represent the interests of mistreated children thrust into courtrooms, try to make the unfamiliar experience as comfortable as possible.

Tippecanoe County CASA Executive Director Coleen Connor said a soft, quiet dog can sometimes do more to relieve anxiety in children than a helpful adult.

“We want it be as stress-free as possible for them,” she said.

Connor said court staff observed noticeable changes in behavior among children, particularly one boy, during several recent trial runs in Tippecanoe Superior Court 3.

“They sat on the floor in the middle of the courtroom, and he was calm,” she said. “In the past, he wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

The soothing effect extends to adults in the courtroom, who often are traumatized by the disturbing details released in court, Connor said.

“It’s a win-win for everyone because court can be stressful for everybody involved: attorneys, clients, children, CASAs.”

Connor reported her observations earlier this month to the Tippecanoe County Board of Commissioners, which approved a preliminary memorandum of understanding with the local chapter of Therapy Dogs International earlier this month.

Under the agreement, the chapter will provide trained and certified therapy dogs, in addition to volunteer handlers, at no cost to taxpayers, said Tom Roberts, director of the local chapter.

Court visits involving therapy dogs will be planned in advance through judges and bailiffs, Connor said. Only trained and certified therapy dogs will be allowed inside the courthouse.

Roberts said his dogs, which often are recruited from humane shelters, must be passive and docile. Any sign of aggression would immediately disqualify an animal, he added.

“What we’re looking for is a dog that, after meeting 100 new people a day, they’re still excited about the 101st,” Roberts said.

Roberts, whose therapy dogs also visit schools, hospitals, nursing homes and many other facilities, said expanding to the courthouse, where adults and children encounter trauma every day, was a logical decision.

“People who experience that on a daily basis have a lot of mental health problems, a lot of physical health problems,” he said. “So we thought, Well, that's another way to serve the community.”

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