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Rikki soothes the stress of court

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“Rikki” went around to the people sitting in the hallway outside the courtroom, making eye contact, smiling.

By William Snowden

Part of Rikki’s work in the court system has been with children who have been victims of sexual violence. Mitchell tells a story of Rikki going over to one traumatized child during a deposition in Leon County and putting her head in the child’s lap, and the child hugging Rikki while telling the upsetting story of abuse.

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In a particularly disturbing child sex trial in Leon County a couple of weeks ago, Rikki was there for the victim, the parents – even the detectives who investigated the case and seemed deeply affected by it were helped by time with Rikki, Mitchell said.

“The dogs are there for really everybody,” he said.

On this day, Rikki is in the courthouse as part of an effort by Wakulla County Judge Jill Walker to have children participate in dependency court cases. Besides the Companions for Therapy dogs, a jury room is open for the kids to use, stocked with toys and books collected by deputy clerks in the Clerk of Courts’ office. A volunteer from the Guardian ad Litem’s office acts as room monitor.

“It’s my hope that every time a child comes to court, they see it as a positive,” Judge Walker says. “I want them to be excited about coming to court.”

The problem, the judge says, is that the State of Florida’s dependency courts were recently audited by the federal government – and failed. Millions of dollars of federal subsidies for foster care are at risk, Walker says. As a member of a committee looking for ways to improve the involvement of families in state’s dependency courts, she decided she should be a front runner in making changes.

Walker, county judge for two decades who sits as a circuit judge in dependency and juvenile court, said that in December, she met with all the staff people involved – from case workers with the state Department of Children and Families to the court bailiffs – to see what could be done to encourage children to be in court, and make them more comfortable.

“Some have toddled up and sat on my lap,” the judge says. “Some came up and drew pictures that they gave me.”

Dependency court can be extremely stressful for those involved. It is court proceedings involving children who may have been abused or neglected, determinations of parental rights and custody. It’s important to have children present, Walker says, and it is especially important for her as judge making decisions about these children to get as much information as possible, including the input of articulate children.

She tells of a couple of cases in which having the child in court was especially helpful: a boy who, every time she looked up from the bench, she saw his feet sticking up somewhere else in the courtroom – the jury box, the gallery, and she recognized his exceptional hyperactivity might be something the mother needed help with. In another case, a girl who had been taken from her home and put in foster care was suffering nightmares over worry about where she would be put next, as she was hearing different stories from adults, and Judge Walker was able to reassure the girl that she would be staying where she was, which made her feel better.

Judge Walker says the dogs and toys and books have appeared to put the children at ease. And as far as the therapy dogs, she says some of the parents have looked less stressed coming into the courtroom as well.

There was some concern from some quarters that having children in the courtroom would be disruptive. But Judge Walker, who has five children of her own, anticipated that those problems could be overcome – and said that the benefit of the information she receives from the children is worth it.

Mitchell, a former builder and founder of Mad Dog Construction, said that after some initial skepticism about the benefits of therapy dogs, they are coming into mainstream acceptance.

Mitchell’s wife has developed a reading program with Leon County Schools that uses dogs to help students who have trouble reading. Those kids sometimes suffer feelings of inferiority – that they’re dumb because they can’t read as well as their peers – so she offers the dogs as listeners: the children read to the dogs. It softens the corrections, Mitchell says, in that his wife can offer to the child that Rikki didn’t understand that word, try this.

“The child knows Rikki can’t understand them,” Mitchell says with a smile. But they go along with it.“Rikki” went around to the people sitting in the hallway outside the courtroom, making eye contact, smiling. Some people ignored her, but others paused and smiled back and reached out to offer Rikki a pat on the head.

Rikki is a golden retreiver trained for therapy services.

Chuck Mitchell of Companions for Therapy, Rikki’s owner and partner, notes that comfort animals can help relieve anxiety and stress and lower blood pressure. While Mitchell and Rikki are in the Wakulla County Courthouse on this day primarily to help children who have pending dependency cases, he feels like they’re available for anybody in the courthouse who needs them – the parents, lawyers.

When a green uniformed bailiff approaches, Mitchell asks if he’d like to pet Rikki. Mitchell dips into a backpack where he has a stash of carrots – yes, carrots – that Rikki likes as treats and offers them. “Would you like to give Rikki a carrot?”

While he acknowledges that it takes a special dog with a mild temperament to work as a therapy companion, he notes that some of the dogs that have been traumatized are some of the best at working with people. Rikki, for example, was a puppy from New Orleans pulled from the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina, packed into a truck and shipped out for foster care. Mitchell adopted her.

Rikki has been specially trained to interact with people – and Companions for Therapy offers services to the court system, Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, the hospital’s rehabilitation service, its behavioral health center, as well as the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee.