by LAURIE MASON SCHROEDER Staff Writer
DOYLESTOWN – The waiting area outside Courtroom 4 at the Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown last week was no place for a child.
Standing in small groups, lawyers and clients engaged in hushed arguments. A woman left the courtroom in tears and marched angrily down the hall. A prisoner’s handcuffs clinked as he shifted in his chair, head bowed so low with grief it almost touched his knees.
The 12-year-old girl waiting her turn to see the judge was oblivious to the chaos. Maggie, a tiny black poodle with doleful eyes, demanded her full attention.
“She’s so soft,” the girl whispered shyly as she petted the dog.
Maggie, and several of her four-legged friends from Roxy Reading, a Doylestown-based therapy dog group, made a guest appearance at the courthouse last week as part of a pilot program launched by county Judge Robert Mellon.
The judge, who oversees court cases involving children who’ve been removed from their parents due to abuse, neglect, mental health issues and other reasons, said the dogs provide a much-needed distraction for traumatized kids.
“I recognized early on how stressful court is for children,” Mellon said. “Some children are so nervous they can’t even speak.”
Helping kids cope with the rigors of court is going to become a bigger issue soon, due to new rules handed down recently by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Starting in July, dependent children will be required to attend a hearing at least once every six months.
While steps are taken to shield vulnerable kids, they must sometimes share courtroom space with angry or distraught parents. Although this can be upsetting, the high court’s reasoning behind increased court appearances is sound, Mellon said.
Most of the dogs stayed outside the courtroom, but at least one accompanied a child onto the witness stand.
“We were a little nervous about how that would work out, but the dog did fine. And the girl who was in front of me, who usually says only a few words, she was so relaxed with the dog next to her that we had a full conversation,” Mellon said.
Roxy Reading is a volunteer-driven nonprofit. There’s no cost to the taxpayers to bring the program into the courthouse, Mellon noted.
Linda McCrillis, a board member and Roxy reading volunteer, said the therapy dogs love the attention.
“This is what they’re trained for,” she said, as Maggie leaned against her leg, tail wagging furiously.
Scientists know that man’s best friend can be a real comfort. A recent study by the State University of New York in Buffalo concluded that pet owners generally have lower blood pressure levels while under stress than their pet-less peers.
Local child advocates are thrilled with the program.
“This week, I have seen the dogs light up the faces of children, their parents, the attorneys,” and others who work at the courthouse, said Stacy Leffler. She’s the foster care supervisor at the Bucks County Children and Youth Agency, the county social service agency that oversees the care of dependent children.
“Our court process can sometimes be overwhelming and stressful for all parties. I know that I felt the tension in the courthouse a little less this week,” Leffler added.
Children and youth caseworker Stephanie Schwartz agreed.
“I witnessed both children and adult clients interacting with these dogs and the comfort it gave them, as well as the smiles it put on the people’s faces,” she said.
Schwartz praised the Roxy Reading volunteers, saying, “It takes special people to be willing to devote their time and efforts to such a cause.”
Mellon said he hopes to make the therapy dog program a monthly feature at the courthouse.
Bailiff Mary Ellen Roche, who coordinates scheduling and is tasked with calling reluctant children into the courtroom, said she hopes it continues.
“There was such a difference in the mood out here this week,” she said. “You could actually feel the tension diffuse.”
By EMILIE LOUNSBERRY, Inquirer Staff Writer
Reporter Rachel Canelli talks with court personnel and volunteers the day it all began.