TAMPA, Fla. — Courthouse dogs in Hillsborough County are taking the stand with abused children to provide some comfort during difficult times.
Domestic violence is not always an adult-on-adult crime, and in some instances, it involves innocent children. Physical or sexual abuse and sometimes neglect by a parent will bring children to the inside of a courtroom to testify against the person who was supposed to love and protect them. These courthouse dogs provide safety during grueling hearings.
Brenda Kocher will be the first to tell you that her dog Tibet may just be the sweetest four-legged angel there is. She said Tibet feels most at home sitting at a child’s feet or maybe putting her head in their lap.
“She stares at them with these big brown doe eyes and she just really makes them feel important and they're not used to feeling important,” said Kocher.
Ten years ago, the yellow-haired lab/golden retriever mix was bred for this job from Canine Companions.
For the first two-and-a-half years of Tibet's life, she trained to become Florida's first Courthouse Facility Dog.
Now almost eight years and hundreds of abuse victims later, Tibet has not only comforted and absorbed the unimaginable pain of so many children but, she sometimes helps bring out the testimony the prosecution may need to convict an abuser.
Brenda remembers one abuse case of a boy who was non-verbal.
“He was rocking and petting her and he was able to give her enough information that they were able to make the decision to go forward with a prosecution. They have to have a threshold to be able to know they can go forward with a prosecution and she was able to get that, and she said afterwards that I could not have gotten that without Tibet's help,” said Kocher.
Tibet was most recently used in the Ronnie Oneal trial. Oneal was on trial for killing his girlfriend and daughter and then trying to kill his young son. As the lone survivor of that horrible night, the prosecution would need his testimony. Tibet was by his side through it all.
“It's very scary to go into court proceedings for a child — it's very very scary — but I get to see these dogs calm them and strengthen them and empower them to be able to tell their story. They really do miracles every single day and to me, they're angels on earth,” said Jennifer Starr, from Voices for Children of Tampa Bay.
Now a little grayer and moving a little slower, Tibet will retire in the next few months. That's where Lorne comes in.
“When he puts on this scarf and his collar, he knows that it's a workday and he shines,” said Lorne’s handler Dayle Urquhart.
Lorne is a full-bred golden retriever who also came from the same Courthouse Facility Dog program as Tibet and has been working alongside her for over a year.
“It's your fear as a mom to be able to watch somebody have to go through that but it's such an important story and it needs to be told and if I can have or if Lorne can have some sort of impact in enabling this child to be able to speak that day I go home feeling so rewarded even though it's a sad story," Dayle said.
Tibet and Lorne are just one of a handful of courthouse facility dogs here in Florida They have more extensive training than therapy dogs and that is why they are approved to work here. The dogs and their handlers are full-time employees of Voices for Children of Tampa Bay. Their program helps so many children who find themselves in abusive homes.
You can learn more about Voices for Children of Tampa Bay by clicking here.