BERLIN – Legislation passed in the Maryland General Assembly this year could allow a local facility dog to accompany children as they testify in court.
During this year’s General Assembly session, legislators in Annapolis introduced cross-filed bills – House Bill 311 and Senate Bill 101 – establishing a program to provide a facility dog or therapy dog to a child witness in any circuit court proceeding in the state. The bill introduced in the Senate passed unanimously in January, and the bill introduced in the House of Delegates passed unanimously in February.
At the Cricket Center – Worcester County’s only child advocacy center – the legislation could provide its facility dog, Josiah, an opportunity to further assist child abuse victims.
Wendy Myers, the Cricket Center’s executive director, explained the facility brings together a multidisciplinary team made up of law enforcement officers, child protective service personnel, prosecutors, lawyers, advocates, mental health therapists and medical personnel to collaborate on child abuse cases.
From investigation and treatment to prosecution, Myers said Josiah – a lab/golden retriever mix – is a calming presence to both staff and the children.
“We have this tool in our toolbox and his name is Josiah,” she said. “He is a full-assistance dog with two years of training here.”
Josiah has been with the Cricket Center since May of 2018. Trained by Canine Companions for Independence, Josiah spends his days at the facility greeting visitors and sitting with children.
“He develops relationships with these children and every time they come in for therapy or a meeting, he is able to provide this level of support to them that humans can’t,” Myers said.
Myers noted, however, that Josiah’s services stop short of the courtroom. Instead of being able to accompany child witnesses, Josiah stays in a witness waiting area located inside the courthouse.
“When the children go into the courtroom we aren’t allowed to go in, so we wait for them in the waiting room,” she said. “When these children testify, the people they are testifying against are sitting a few feet away. For a child it can be a traumatic experience for them.”
To that end, Myers and Josiah made trips to Annapolis earlier this year to testify in support of HB311 and SB101. She noted that pilot programs for court dogs in both Anne Arundel and Howard counties were well received and that a statewide program would be beneficial.
“We want to fulfill our mission, and our mission is to reduce the trauma of child abuse,” she said. “Providing this level of support during prosecution would lessen that trauma.”
Myers said she has no doubt that Josiah can further assist children in the courtroom. She noted that he has been trained to respond to several commands and has a calm temperament.
“He is super reliable …,” she said. “We fully believe in Josiah and believe he won’t cause a disruption in the court room.”
On Feb. 18, Josiah joined more than a dozen therapy dogs and their handlers at the Maryland State House for a visit with Gov. Larry Hogan, who expressed his support for the legislation. They were joined by other advocates and the bills’ primary sponsors, Senator Bryan Simonaire and Delegate Michael Malone.
The therapy dogs and handlers represented two organizations: the Maryland Children’s Alliance, which provides dedicated facility dogs to child victims of abuse, and Caring Canines, which partnered with Anne Arundel County Circuit Court for its court dog pilot program.
“I am proud to support the Court Dogs and Child Witnesses Program bill, which has seen incredible bipartisan support in the House and the Senate,” Hogan said. “This innovative approach to supporting child witnesses will provide comfort to vulnerable Marylanders when they need it most.”
Once the legislation is signed, Myers said Josiah will be able to help child abuse victims during every step in the process.
Myers noted participation in the program is voluntary and that the Cricket Center would need to seek the support of the Worcester County Commissioners and the circuit court judges moving forward.
“This legislation gives us permission to do it, but support will be decided at the local level,” she said. “Each county will have to do some work before they can go into the courtroom, so that means we would need the support of the commissioners and judges.”
Myers said the center is also working with the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office to develop a plan for implementing the program and procedures for having therapy and facility dogs in the courtroom.
“We believe once they see how reliable he is, and once we get the process worked out, it will be very successful,” she said.