At the nonprofit Child Protection Center, dogs like Fiona Marie, Stella, Brooke, Oliver, Django, Raven, Hercules, Daisy and Cracker are offering their love to kids through the CPC's P.A.W.S. program -- Pet Advocates Working in the Suncoast. The CPC serves victims of childhood sexual abuse. Danielle Hughes, the P.A.W.S. program coordinator and Child Protection Team supervisor, began P.A.W.S. eleven years ago after learning about the concept at the forensic interview training through the National Child Protection Training Center.
"Part of that particular training included information on children testifying in court and how traumatic that can be," Danielle says. "I learned that other national children's advocacy centers were utilizing certified pet therapy animals with the children during the court process. I knew right away that we needed to do that in Sarasota."
Danielle's own pet, a yellow Lab named Harley Duke, was already a certified pet therapy animal. She reached out to the local state's attorneys who were handling crimes against children, and they expressed their support. Officially starting P.A.W.S. in 2010, Danielle was able to locate three other pet therapy animals and handlers who felt capable of working with children suffering with extreme traumas.
"We are dealing with very heavy topics here at the CPC," Danielle says. "To have a dog sitting in the lobby, it lightens the load for the children and families a little bit. The state's attorney will ask the family if they are interested in having a pet therapy animal with the child during the court process. If they are, I send the request to our volunteer handlers. The handler interacts with the family, but it's only to talk about the dog, what kind it is, how old it is. The dog is there to support the child."
The P.A.W.S. dogs help make the children feel more at ease through depositions and other challenging aspects of a criminal case.
"The dogs do what we can't," Danielle says. "It's such a beautiful thing to see. We had a victim who was eight or nine years old, and she was having trouble talking to the attorneys about what had happened to her. We brought in a pet therapy animal named Big Red and the handler told the girl how scared Big Red was while riding up on the elevator. The girl went to comfort the dog, and because she understood he had been scared like she was, she was soon able to talk to the prosecutors about what had been done to her. It amazing what these dogs can do for these kids."
Handlers with certified pet therapy animals interested in the PAWS program should contact Danielle for more information.