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BLOG: Dogs helping kids in Pa. courtrooms

Allison M Cooper
York Dispatch

The myriad uses of therapy dogs is well-documented and, it seems, new uses come to the fore each week. From Media, Pa., a recent story about a group of therapy dogs trained by Paws for People from Newark, Delaware partnering with Delaware County courts to assist children who must testify in custody hearings and other matters.

Therapy dog Frangelica is held by her caretaker, local attorney Kathryn Meloni, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016 as Delaware County officials announce the beginning of the Courthouse Companions program in Media, Pa .  Partnering with Newark, Del.-based non-profit Paws for People, county officials signed a $1,000, 12-month contract to have the pets placed in the waiting rooms of these courts as a way to calm children and others in a courthouse environment. (Kathleen Carey/Delaware County Daily Times via AP)

Custody hearings are a painful reality for many children. The trauma a child is exposed to in some cases is trauma that doesn't leave them. Being caught in the middle between two parents who harbor animosity can be devastating but even in the most amenable circumstances, the shattering of a family means a child's world is coming apart. Other matters, if they include abuse or other crimes against children could alter a child's ability to cope for life.

Of all of the places where therapy dogs do good work in this world (campuses, hospitals, elementary schools) it seems that the introduction of canine companions into a courtroom may be one of the most humane and useful applications of dogs as calming companions for children.

Original AP story: A courthouse in eastern Pennsylvania is among the first in the state to use dogs to help children feel safe and relaxed before they testify.

The Delaware County courts are partnering with Paws for People, a therapy dog program in Newark, Delaware.

Eight pet therapy teams consisting of a dog and their human handler will come to the courthouse in Media for Juvenile Court hearings each Tuesday and Wednesday.

The dogs will be available to soothe children, especially younger children, who may be frightened or nervous about appearing in court for custody proceedings and other matters.

Juvenile Court Judge Nathaniel Nichols said he hopes the "canine therapy teams will help children, their families, and others involved in cases be calm and overcome their fears."

"I would see those children in the waiting room and you could just tell from their body language how fearful they were, how uncomfortable they were," Nichols said.

Kathryn Meloni is a family attorney who practices in the suburban Philadelphia county. She'll oversee the county program, and participate in it with her dog Frangelica, having volunteered at Paws for People for two years.

"During that time I have witnessed amazing results stemming from the relationship between dogs and people," Meloni said.

The dogs will not be used in courtrooms, but will be available in waiting rooms where children and other witnesses sit before court appearances.

Paws for People first placed dogs in the courthouse in Cecil County, Maryland, before expanding to Harford County, Maryland, where dogs, cats and even rabbits are sometimes brought into the courtroom.

Similar programs exist or have been offered in Bucks, Clarion, Cumberland, Erie and Washington counties in Pennsylvania.

— The Associated Press