[Tallahassee] – The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program is marking tomorrow (Friday) as “Justice’s Best Friend Day,” so named for the highly-trained dogs that accompany abused, abandoned and neglected children to court – because these dogs are so good at calming kids and helping them get through traumatic testimony.
To celebrate, the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Foundation, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Animal Law Section of The Florida Bar will present the 2020 Children’s Champion Award to the sponsors of the ground-breaking 2017 law known as the “Justice’s Best Friend Act.” This law expanded the use of therapy animals and facility dogs in Florida courts to reduce trauma for victims and witnesses, including those in cases of child abuse and neglect or sexual offenses, and those involving people with intellectual disabilities.
Senator Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, Senator Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and former Representative Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, will be the honorees in a Facebook and YouTube ceremony that launches at 2:00 p.m. Friday. Presenters are DCF Secretary Chad Poppell, Guardian Ad Litem Executive Director Alan Abramowitz and Matthew Dietz, Esq., of The Bar’s Animal Law Section; the emcee is Guardian Ad Litem Director of Operations Kristen Solomon.
Abramowitz says former Representative Jason Brodeur, then chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, played a lead role in passing HB 151 and other measures supporting children and animals.
“My own personal back-story that I don’t share a bunch is that I was adopted myself and very fortunate to get adopted into a loving home,” Representative Brodeur says. “And it really informs your perspective when you get the opportunity to work with vulnerable populations, because at any given time, that could have been me. Had I not gotten into the home I did, it’s entirely possible that I would have been a victim of trauma or a witness to trauma, and there were no protections for certain traumas for those kids.”
Senator Book, too, championed the “Justice’s Best Friend Act” in part due to her personal experience. “Having been a victim of child sexual abuse myself, and having to go to court and see my abuser, I know the trauma and the re-victimization that can cause a child,” she says. “And so any time the advocates have something to make it a little easier, I’m ready to go to war to make it happen.”
“As a state, we are committed to providing every tool possible to offer comfort and healing for the children in our court system,” says Senator Montford.
Montford’s district contains the largest therapy animal program in Florida, the Tallahassee Memorial Animal Therapy Program, which has pioneered the use of clinical data to show its outcomes. Lawmakers have been impressed by evidence that therapy animals and facility dogs provide measurable benefits, such as reducing stress hormones and lowering blood pressure. Additionally, TMH’s teams of dogs and handlers routinely came to legislative hearings on HB 151 and its Senate companion.
Now, says Abramowitz, children’s advocates want to expand the role of dogs in helping abused and neglected children in as many ways as possible.
Chuck Mitchell, manager of the Second Circuit’s Courthouse Therapy Dog Program, said the teams of dogs and handlers are “matched” to the specific needs of each case. All are well screened, meet national standards and are certified by veterinarians to be in good health.