Tallahassee, Fla., (WTXL) - Thursday, the Florida Senate is expected to vote on SB 416, a measure that would expand access to therapy animals for children and victims of violent crime in courtrooms across the state.
Right now, the Leon County Court offers children in criminal court (often victims of physical or sexual violence) and dependency court the comfort of an animal to sit with them while they review their testimony, or talk with a judge.
The service is provided in conjunction with Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare's Animal Therapy Program, directed by Stephanie Perkins. Perkins says it was a volunteer with TMH's Animal Therapy Program who first championed the bill.
The first bill was limited, only offering protection for child victims who needed therapy dogs. This new bill will allow vulnerable adults access to service.
"With a child who has an ongoing case, we'll probably focus on criminal court mainly, she'll come in and sit with them through those traumatic events because telling their story is really scary."Perkins explains, "Every time they have to do it it's horribly embarrassing, and to have a dog there that's non judgmental really calms them down and makes them feel better.
Margot is one such therapy dog. She was raised by inmates, part of Leader Dogs for the Blind's prison program. She went on to advanced training to become a guide dog, but when she didn't make the cut she was career changed. Just 21 months old, she's a part of the TMH team. She shakes hands and lays her head in the lap of people that are going through trauma, helping to create the illusion of normalcy in a high stress environment.
Dogs like Margot make all the difference, according to certified Child Life specialist Olivia Burton. Burton describes her experience with the animals, saying she's seen therapy dogs climb into bed with patients, to distract them during painful and frightening procedures.
"A courtroom environment for a child could be very stressful, which is very similar to a hospital experience," Burton says, "So having an animal there as a therapy resource could be great for coping with that situation as well as normalizing that environment for that child."
If Senate Bill 416 passes access to courtroom animals will expand across the state. Support animals will be available to all children who were victims of sexual or physical abuse, abandonment, and neglect. It will also expand access to adults who have suffered sexual violence or have intellectual disabilities.
The measure would be implemented as early as July of this year, and isn't expected to cost anything for state and local governments.