Policies and Procedures for Pet Therapy Dog Handlers in Early Childhood Court
Amended February 1, 2023
Overview & Purpose
Children and adults in Early Childhood Court and dependency trials are sometimes required to wait for extended periods of time before their court appearance, and this wait may produce high levels of anxiety for some – particularly children in vulnerable situations. Many studies show that the interaction with friendly animals provides both emotional and physical benefits.
Once a month, during Early Childhood Court hearings, the court will try to have pet therapy teams available to interact with children and adults waiting for their court hearings. The goal is to provide comfort and positive pet interaction to reduce anxiety before the court hearings begin and during the hearings. When requested and approved by the presiding judge, a pet therapy team may be available for dependency trials, also.
Children as well as parents, custodians and other court participants are invited to interact with the pet therapy team(s) in a group setting while waiting for their case to be heard. Depending on scheduling and availability, one team may be present in the morning and afternoon.
Pets + Handlers = Pet Therapy Team
Each handler and his/her dog are considered a pet therapy team. The teams are all volunteers affiliated with various local and national pet therapy organizations, including, but not limited to, Alliance of Therapy Dogs, Therapy Dogs International, Pet Partners and P.A.W.S. Membership in these pet therapy organizations includes liability insurance coverage for its pet therapy team members when volunteering within the community, and proof of membership and liability insurance is required to volunteer in court. Unfortunately, pet therapy teams only certified by HSSC do not have the necessary liability insurance coverage and are not eligible.
These teams visit long-term care facilities, elementary schools, nursing homes, public libraries and courts to promote motivational, recreational and therapeutic benefits. All animals and handlers have passed nationally recognized skills and aptitude tests and have been examined by a veterinarian to ensure good health. All pet therapy teams must also comply with the following provisions:
- Effective January 1, 2023, all handlers must complete an application to be considered for approval as a court pet therapy team. Volunteer handlers accepted prior to that date are grandfathered in with the paperwork previously provided to the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court.
- Identification of Handlers: All handlers will be issued a Twelfth Circuit ID card that identifies both the handler and pet. This card shall be worn whenever working as a pet therapy team in court. Handlers should also wear a solid white shirt or solid black shirt with logo to identify the handler as a pet therapy team when attending court. Dogs should wear the red bandana provided by the court.
- Leash: Dogs must always be leashed with the handler in control of the animal and leash.
- Animal fatigue: Because therapy animals are subject to fatigue, particularly in stressful situations, it is suggested that teams “work” for a maximum of two hours; however, teams have the discretion to work longer if desired. Teams are also encouraged to take breaks or leave when necessary.
- Cleanup: Handlers are responsible for the cleanup of accidental indoor animal eliminations. Handlers are also required to clean up outdoor eliminations using proper disposal methods.
- Liability: Each pet therapy team must have liability insurance coverage in the amount of $1,000,000 and annually provide a copy of the insurance policy and proof of current membership in the underlying pet therapy organization to Court.
Judicial Center Information
Once a month, the presiding Early Childhood Court judge and Court Administration have agreed to allow pet therapy teams to be available to interact with children and adults waiting for court either outside of Courtroom 3E or in the courtroom at the Manatee County Judicial Center, or outside of Courtroom 6B or in the courtroom at the Silvertooth Judicial Center. Pet therapy teams have the discretion to determine the most appropriate location for interacting with the court participants, which may include the public waiting areas, the attorney/client meeting rooms, the children’s waiting room, or, at the judge’s discretion, in Courtroom 3E or 6B. Judge Dees and Judge McHugh, the current presiding Early Childhood Court judges have indicated that pet therapy teams are 100% welcome to enter the courtroom at any time.
- Security: When entering either the Manatee County Judicial Center or the Silvertooth Judicial Center, all handlers are required to enter through the public entrance and go through security. Handlers are reminded that the safety and security of all court participants is the primary responsibility of judicial security and that they must follow all instructions given to them by judicial security.
- Handlers are advised that glass bottles and metal cans are not permitted in the either judicial center. Handlers may bring dog treats or food/water for their pets.
- Parking: Handlers will be provided free parking which is to be used only when scheduled to attend court for pet therapy in the Manatee County Judicial Center. There is free parking available on the street and in the parking garage one block east of the Silvertooth Judicial Center.
No more than one pet therapy team should be scheduled to attend Early Childhood Court at a time. Additionally, Court Administration cannot guarantee that a specific pet therapy team will be available or assigned to attend Early Childhood Court on any given day.
Presence of Third Party
A pet therapy team is never to be alone with a child; a third party is required to always be present when pet therapy teams are interacting with a child. Teams are encouraged to visit with children in a group setting or public hallway to ensure the presence of a third party.
All handlers are required to undergo a yearly background check performed by Court Administration. These background checks are in addition to background checks performed by the pet therapy organizations in which handlers are members. The specific findings of the background check are confidential; however, Court Administration will advise the handler if he/she is not approved to participate in the court’s pet therapy program. The court does not keep any background check records received or reviewed. The only records maintained by Court Administration are the authorization to run the background check, a record that the background check was completed and whether the handler was approved.
Handlers are required to maintain the confidentiality of all information, including but not limited to, information pertaining to children and their families, whether written or verbal, received through the scope of interacting with Early Childhood Court participants. All handlers are required to sign a confidentiality agreement that will be kept in Court Administration.
Approval of Teams
Once the required application, proof of liability insurance, background check authorization and signed confidentiality agreement are received and approved by Court Administration, the applicant and his/her dog will be scheduled to meet with a current Pet Therapy volunteer to assess the applicant’s aptitude in the courtroom setting. If no concerns are raised the applicant will be approved to participate in the Pet Therapy Program.
Handlers are responsible for reporting incidents involving pet therapy teams to Manatee County Court Administration (941‑749‑3655) or Sarasota County Court Administration (941‑861‑7800). Reportable incidents may include injuries to a person or animal; situations with a high potential that an injury could have occurred either to a person or an animal, even if no one was hurt at the time; situations with a perception of an accident or injury; and incidents resulting in damages to property. When in doubt, please report it.
Denials, Program Removal
Due to the sensitive nature of the court proceedings, the presiding judge may request that certain pet therapy teams attend or not attend Early Childhood Court. Court Administration reserves the right to deny applications and remove pet therapy teams from the program, and may amend, modify or terminate the Pet Therapy Program at any time.
1. Effective August 15, 2017, pet therapy teams only certified by the Humane Society of Sarasota County (HSSC) are not eligible for liability insurance coverage when volunteering in court. These teams must become certified by a national organization whose liability insurance includes volunteering in court.
2. Manatee County only