Law students in Dickinson Law’s Children’s Advocacy Clinic represent children who have been through stressful and traumatic experiences, often resulting in intense cases in the courtroom. They now have a partner who’s helping to relieve some of the anxiety that children experience while testifying at the Cumberland County Courthouse.
Diego, a 2-year-old black Labrador Retriever trained by Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD), is a first for Cumberland County. The commissioners were approached and embraced the idea of a courthouse facility dog in 2015.
“A dog from Lancaster County came to visit the court and the commissioners to demonstrate what facility dogs do and how well behaved they are,” said Lindsay Baird, 1993, esquire, solicitor, Cumberland County Children & Youth Services (CCYS) and Diego’s primary handler.
From the initial idea to his actual arrival, the process to secure Diego took about two and a half years. The Cumberland County Bar Foundation raised the funds in anticipation of his arrival, paid for, and owns him.
“We met with SSD to discuss the characteristics a courthouse facility dog would need,” explained Baird. “All of the service dogs go to a puppy raiser after weaning, and that person raises the puppy until 18 months of age. During this time, the training and socialization begins. At 18 months, the puppy returns to SSD for advanced training. SSD chose four dogs with the characteristics we requested. We met with all four dogs and ranked them. About a week later, we found out that our request was approved for Diego, who was our first pick.”
After completing two weeks of training with Baird, Diego began work at the courthouse on June 20, 2016. He not only lives with Baird and her yellow Labrador Retriever, but also travels with her to and from work each day. Baird maintains a calendar for Diego, which includes as many as five scheduled visits each day made by caseworkers, Court Appointed Specialized Advocates (CASA) volunteers and attorneys. There is always a handler (Baird, or a CCYS paralegal or CASA volunteer trained as a secondary handler) with Diego and the children he visits.
“Too many visits are tiring for him because he is ‘on’ and having to be listening to his handler for cues up to an hour at a time,” said Baird.
During his scheduled visits and in the courtroom, Diego plays and cuddles with children. He can drape himself across their laps and put pressure on them while lying on the floor for comfort.
“Coming to the agency building or to court is very stressful and sometimes traumatic for children,” said Baird. “Sometimes children find it easier to give answers to Diego rather than to adults if they are asked questions about topics that make them uncomfortable.”
Diego has gained a lot of fans, including Dickinson Law students who have had the opportunity to meet and interact with him while representing their clients.
Third-year law student Bridget Brainard met Diego before one of her very first hearings. She saw him from a distance with a young child outside the courtroom and was immediately impressed by his calm and affectionate demeanor, as well as how the child responded so positively to him.
“Last semester, I filled in as the guardian ad litem for three sibling children in a very intense and upsetting case,” said Brainard. “Before the hearing, one of the children was seated in a chair outside of the courtroom with his head down. When Diego arrived, he immediately walked up to the child, put his head on his lap and looked up at him. The child started petting him, and it was the first time I saw him smile.
“Often, these children attend court hearings worrying about where they will live, where they will go to school, and when or if they will see their parents,” noted Brainard. “Diego provides the much-needed emotional support for these vulnerable clients when they walk into the courtroom that could never be accomplished without him.”
Rue-Ann Gabriel, also a third-year law student, requested Diego for two of her clients. “Our hearing was unusually long, so it was great to have Diego to keep them company. It is great that he can provide comfort and support and make them forget about what is going on in the courtroom.”
“Diego has given them something to look forward to and makes the time here fun,” said Baird. “It is wonderful to see their faces light up when he appears on the scene.”
As Diego’s handler, Baird is responsible for all of his care, exercise, and making health and grooming appointments. His expenses are currently paid for by the Cumberland County Bar Foundation. Knisely’s Farm and Pet Center donates his food, and Kindred Spirit Veterinary Hospital’s Dr. Doris Do provides her services for free. When he retires, he will become Baird’s dog outright, including financial responsibilities.
Diego will have his sixth-month training retest with SSD this month, followed by an annual retest in June. This will continue for as long as he is working, which is typically seven or eight years.
Anyone interested in supporting Diego, can contact Cumberland County Bar Association Executive Director Becky Morgenthal at 717-249-3166.
View photos of Diego at the Cumberland County Courthouse here.