What better way to jump into spring than with a story of Lily, a 5-year-old labradoodle that began a journey on her own along with her handler Barb Reilly three years ago. Lily hails from Caring Canines. She was the first dog in Anne Arundel County to enter a courtroom and she will not be the last.
Lily provided comfort, protection and trust to children who were in a most vulnerable position of testifying during a court proceeding. With anxiety and fear that most children may experience in such a formidable setting, having a therapy dog nearby helped to promote more trust and calmness in the courtroom and helped set a better frame of mind, according to the Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Office and many other professional advocates.
In early 2020, Senator Bryan Simonaire and I brought forth legislation (Senate Bill 101 and House Bill 311, respectively) in January of 2020 that would allow any circuit court in the state to voluntarily participate in the program. Luckily, the bill hearings, the witnesses, and the advocates from the courts were supportive and lined up for testimony on the hearing dates. The bill easily passed both chambers and was signed into law by Governor Larry Hogan.
The bill was so popular that Governor Hogan held a press conference with all therapy dogs on the grounds of the State House building. Groups like the Maryland Children Alliance, Caring Canines, various county state’s attorney offices, as well as administrators of circuit courts, sent in support testimony for the bill. The Maryland Judiciary Conference also fully supported the bill. This was one of the most popular bills to be presented in the House Judiciary Committee. The chairman of the Judiciary Committee (Delegate Luke Clippinger) requested a picture with the dogs that came in to testify in support of the bill. This all occurred before our March shutdown when the pandemic hit.
Fast forward to this year’s 2021 session and, once again, Senator Simonaire and I brought forth additional legislation (Senate Bill 0007 and House Bill 136, respectively) that would allow the court dog therapy program to occur in the veterans treatment courts, expanding the court dog therapy program to veterans.
Once again, with full bipartisan support, both bills have passed through the Senate and the House. Unfortunately, the fanfare that was given to our precious therapy dogs last year could not occur in this session because of the pandemic. It is difficult to put the dogs on a Zoom hearing to testify. However, organizations like Puppy Spot that train and handle these service dogs came out in full force to testify on their behalf. The Mental Health Association of Maryland (MHAMD) as well as veterans testified to the importance of this bill, stating that “appearing before a judge can be a traumatic experience.” Many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and the dogs provide a feeling of safety and comfort to them.
I am cautiously optimistic that this bill will reach the finish line by Sine Die and be signed into law by Governor Hogan. Maybe by the fall of 2021, there will be another dog therapy press conference on the grounds of the State House where all the dogs can proudly prance about before heading to court to help children or veterans in need of emotional support during court proceedings.