Dogs to be sworn in as part of new court pet therapy program for kids

Circuit Judge Teresa Dees poses with therapy dog, Ruby Begonia, part of one of seven pet therapy teams that Dees will ceremonially swear-in on Friday morning.
Circuit Judge Teresa Dees poses with therapy dog, Ruby Begonia, part of one of seven pet therapy teams that Dees will ceremonially swear-in on Friday morning. Provided photo

Appearing in Dependency Court is never fun for any child, especially since it usually means they are a victim of neglect, abuse or abandonment.

One 14-year-old girl, who uses the alias Amber, is an example of the children that Circuit Judge Teresa Dees regularly sees in Dependency Court in Manatee County.

“Amber is wise beyond her years and has seen and experienced things no young lady should see, let alone experience,” Dees wrote for the pet therapy page on the court’s website. “Amber’s mother’s parental rights were terminated years ago.”

But since the girl has not been adopted, her case in Dependency Court has remained opened for years. But the girl does not necessarily want to be adopted, Dees explains, but instead wishes she could go home to her mother. So instead, the girl runs away often and usually stays with older men during those times, using drugs and cutting herself.

“Amber trusts very few adults. She believes adults ‘tricked’ her and her mother. As a result of the perceived trickery, she lingers in the ‘system’ with no home and no one to love,” Dees wrote. “Amber does, however, trust Ruby.”

Ruby is a pet therapy dog, one of seven that the 12 Judicial Circuit Court began to use in dependency court in mid-June. Dependency Court deals with the non-criminal child welfare cases that involve allegations of child neglect, abuse or abandonment.

On Friday morning, Dees will be swearing in seven pet therapy teams for use in Manatee’s Dependency Court.

The open house and swearing-in will take place at 10 a.m. Friday in courtroom 5C in the Manatee County Judicial Center, 1051 Manatee Ave., Bradenton. The seven pet therapy teams will be introduced to the public.

Ruby gave Amber the courage to speak with the judge for more than an hour on one recent afternoon, sharing her fears, frustrations and wants with the judge. The girl’s pain was visible, as she promised not to run away again, Dees stated. Thanks to Ruby and time the two spent together outside the courtroom, the judge has started to see changes in girl during her most recent trips to court. It almost seems as if the girl provides as much to the dog, as the dog does her, Dees observed when seeing them together.

“Amber might have run again. One thing is for sure, when Amber is ready to be found, Ruby will be waiting for her in the dependency courtroom to ‘allow’ Amber to comfort her during a long day in court,” Dees said.

On July 1, a state bill, HB 151, went into effect that expanded the permissible use of therapy dogs in any proceedings that involve child abuse, abandonment, or neglect throughout the state. Prior to this bill, therapy dogs were only permitted in cases involving sexual abuse.

Pet therapy dog handlers must undergo a background check before they can be approved to volunteer. Additionally, the handlers are also required to sign a confidentiality oath that they will not disclose any information they are privy to.

“The plan is to expand it into Sarasota County, as well,” courthouse spokesman Dennis Menedez said.

The court hopes to get that program underway in the fall.

Participants in Dependency Court are encouraged to attend as are any interested potential volunteers.

Anyone who is interested in volunteering can visit jud12.flcourts.org/PetTherapy.aspx for more information and an application.

Jessica De Leon: 941-745-7049, @JDeLeon1012