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, proponents said. A handler would accompany each dog.
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.
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.
The dogs have to meet certain requirements to be considered for this program, including training from qualified organizations.
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.
In Minnesota, the Hennepin County Attorney’s office recently added a staff dog to “provide much needed stress and anxiety relief to our staff members, as well as the witnesses and victims we work with during cases,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.