ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Legislation that passed in the Maryland Senate would establish statewide an initiative to provide therapy dogs to child witnesses in circuit court hearings and proceedings.
Children who have to appear in court can feel anxious and overwhelmed, especially when recounting tragic events or similar instances, proponents said. A handler would accompany each dog, under the bill.
The Court Dog and Child Witness Program was implemented several years ago in the Anne Arundel County and Harford County circuit courts to help ease the fears and emotions of child witnesses with the aid of “a facility dog or therapy dog,” according to a state analysis.
A “facility dog” often stays full time in places with patients, like a nursing home, to help people suffering from mental illness, for example.
Therapy dogs are used for emotional support and comfort, but not as often.
Senate bill 101 was created as a response to the successes of this program, which has been running just in those jurisdictions.
Lead sponsor Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, has been at the forefront of this legislation in Maryland.
He first proposed a similar statewide program in 2016, but it evolved into the pilot program run in Anne Arundel and Harford counties as the “court asked for more time.”
In doing so, he said, the program has “been effective,” now rolled out fully in those counties.
“This is definitely a team effort,” Simonaire told Capital News Service. “It’s hard to go to court, period.”
The dogs have to meet certain requirements to be considered for this program, including training from qualified organizations.
In Anne Arundel County, Dogwood Acres Pet Retreat in Davidsonville, Maryland, uses its Caring Canines Pet Therapy Program, where all dogs pass a Pet Partners nationwide certification program.
“We test everything and anything,” Caring Canines coordinator Erin Bogan said.
So far, the “response (to the program) has been amazing in the community” and Bogan said that they get calls three to four times a month now for the use of the therapy dogs.
“We’ve always wanted a partnership with the courts,” Bogan said. “We visit the courthouse once a month to remind them of the program…It’s been an amazing difference for those in need.”
Simonaire championed the bill and received support from the Anne Arundel County state’s attorney’s office on the legislation, he said.
Under the bill, this program would not be mandated for every county in Maryland. Rather, participation is voluntary, so if a jurisdiction decides to participate, the program will be implemented.
Jurors are given instructions on the purpose of the dogs, and children are able to reach down and pet them while they are recounting a traumatic experience, said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“Most of all they provide support for children when they really need it,” Jordan told lawmakers on Thursday in a hearing for House bill 311, identical legislation to Simonaire’s Senate bill.
“It is a powerful tool…this is something that should go statewide,” Harford County Deputy State’s Attorney Gavin Patashnick testified at the hearing on Thursday.
“(The program) sets up all the framework, but it needs somebody with a passion to do it, who wanted to champion the issue,” Simonaire said.
One of the more important components to this program was making sure that these dogs were trained, he said.
“The last thing you want is a dog making a scene in the courtroom,” Simonaire said.
The Senate bill passed unanimously in that chamber Jan. 23, and was sent to the House Judiciary Committee, where it awaits a hearing.