All kinds walk through the security checkpoints at the Frederick County Courthouse on any given day, but few manage to turn heads like Giuseppe, Welton, Zeke and Zoey.
"We're just the handlers. They call us 'the dopes on the ends of the ropes,'" said Francina Baldi with a smile as she led Giuseppe, a 3-year-old mini goldendoodle, toward the stairwell through a cluster of onlookers July 10. "It's the dogs who are the stars."
Stopping patiently to give everyone the chance to kneel down to pet the adorable entourage, the dogs' handlers gradually made their way up to Magistrate Hearing Room 1 on the second floor where, every Wednesday, the court's Children in Need of Assistance cases are heard.
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Because CINA cases involve children who are either in foster care or whose families are under close supervision due to concerns about abuse or neglect, many of the young people waiting outside the hearing room were understandably wary, but even the most aloof children would find it hard to resist the straightforward, genuine affection of a friendly dog.
While Welton, an 11-year-old black and white papillon, handled crowd control with a group of fawning attorneys, 5-year-old Zoey, an old English sheepdog, nudged her way between the legs of the standing adults to nuzzle up next to a teenage boy sitting on a bench next to the hearing room. Tentatively at first, the boy reached out a hand and began gently stroking the fuzzy white hair on the dog's head as her handler, Martha May, nodded approvingly.
"She's soft, isn't she?" May asked the boy, who nodded shyly. "Do you have a dog?"
"I used to," the boy replied, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth as Zoey leaned into his hand.
Such interactions are the core reason the dogs are welcomed into the courthouse each week — to provide emotional support and act as friendly, nonjudgmental companions to children facing tough, potentially distressing hearings in court. All of the dogs are specially trained members of the nonprofit Go Team Therapy Dogs organization and, even though the program was still in its first month, the dogs' presence has already had a noticeably positive effect, said Family Magistrate Julie A. Minner, who handles CINA cases.
"I think it's really helpful for these kids and their families who are participants in the child welfare system just to have these dogs on-hand that can provide them comfort," Minner said. "They're able to also pet and hold the dogs; they can be a real source of emotional support."
Minner helped get the program off the ground shortly after she was approached by Baldi, a neighbor. Baldi mentioned the positive results she's seen from the therapy dogs in the many other environments and deployments the group participates in, including at assisted living homes, schools, libraries and even in regular visits to the Victor Cullen Center, a hardware-secure juvenile detention facility in Sabillasville.
After their initial conversations, Minner took the idea to Administrative Judge Julie R. Stevenson Solt, who cleared the dogs with the sheriff's office's courthouse security deputies and eventually secured permission from the county as well, Minner said.
"If (this program is) successful, then maybe we'll be able to expand it to other areas, as well," Minner said, mentioning juvenile delinquency cases and other youth-centered dockets as potential future beneficiaries. "But we'll just have to see how this works."
The dogs were also a hit among the lawyers and courthouse staff who work in the building, often drawing crowds from around the courthouse. Deborah Kidwell, a Frederick police officer who was leaving a court appointment on the third floor of the courthouse, made it a point to stop by the second floor when she spotted the dogs from the balcony.
"I'm standing up there and I see everybody looking down and then I see these dogs," Kidwell said with a laugh, saying she was interested to learn that the dogs were trained to help alleviate stress. "... I can definitely confirm it works for adults, too; it's totally relaxing and they're very sweet."
Back by the hearing room, Welton and Giuseppe joined Zoey in sitting next to the young man waiting outside the magistrate hearing room. The boy, now sitting crossed-legged on the carpet, took turns petting each dog. His once meager smile broadened.
May, still standing nearby, finished talking with the attorneys in the boy's upcoming case, who agreed to allow Zoey to accompany the boy into the courtroom to sit with him and help keep him calm.
"When we approached this young man he was as stiff as a board, his eyes were darting back and forth and you could just tell how on-edge he was, and now look at the difference," May said with a smile. "This is what these dogs can do for these kids. I love my job."