Jedi the court dog: ‘Even before a kid comes to court, it can help alleviate that stress’
Children may find themselves in a courtroom for dependency, custody and delinquency cases. When an adult cannot calm the situation for them, Jedi steps in to save the day.
Since being donated to the courthouse in February, Jedi, Lycoming County’s court dog, has been trained to decrease stress and anxiety in his wards. When the court system needs to work with children, Jedi and his handler, Jerri Rook, will sit in the room with them.
“Jedi gives them a much-needed distraction,” said Melissa Wheeland, Children and Youth assessment supervisor.
A Labrador and golden retriever mix, Jedi has made a name for himself as a patient friend and a calming force for kids in a stressful environment.
Rook said that for most kids, seeing Jedi and being able to play with him immediately calms them.
“It gives them something to think about other than the reason they are here,” Rook said. “Even the parents and families sitting out in the waiting room, everyone wants to pet and talk to him.”
The state recognizes facility dogs as a best practice to keeping a courtroom informed on preventing trauma, which made it easy for Children and Youth to make room in the office’s budget to help fund the costs associated with Jedi, who was donated by the national nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence. The rest of the funds used to pay for food and care for Jedi comes from local donations.
“At some point, we may have to look at fundraising but right now his basic needs are being met,” said Judge Joy Reynolds McCoy, who oversees the family court division.
Because Jedi is mostly funded by Children and Youth, Rook and Jedi prioritize dependency cases first, with family law coming second, then juvenile cases and finally criminal court.
In his first year as a facility dog, Jedi has only worked on one criminal case. The defense attorneys agreed to allow Jedi to sit with the young victims if it could be done in a way that wouldn’t sway the opinion of the jury. Rook and Children and Youth decided to keep Jedi underneath the table the victims sat at as they testified live on camera from another room.
“The creative method we were able to use him in, I truly believe helped us with the case,” Jordan McGill, an assessment caseworker with Children and Youth, said.
As the victims’ became more nervous as they testified, Jedi made sure to calm them down. Rook explained that one of the victims began to bounce her leg up and own and her demeanor changed when Jedi laid down on her foot.
Wheeland said that one of the victims was surprised that the plan was for Jedi to stick with her for the entire process, even asking Rook, “He’s for me?”
Like any hard-working court employee, Jedi needs to take breaks throughout the day. Rook said that when he begins to feel burnt out, Jedi will show signs that he needs a walk.
“I can tell by watching him when he’s had enough,” Rook said. “For the most part, he handles things very well but I can tell when we need to step out.”
McCoy said that now that Jedi has spent some time in the courthouse, kids in Children and Youth cases will ask for him. Some youngsters who’ve never even met him will ask for Jedi because they’ve seen his Facebook page.
“That’s great because even before a kid comes to court, it can help alleviate that stress,” McCoy said.