One Way of Being a More Trauma-Responsive Court

Judge Doug JohnsonTammy QuickJudge Doug Johnson, The Separate Juvenile Court of Douglas County, NE (pictured)
Tammy Quick, CASA for Douglas County Nebraska Supervisor

Summary: Judge Johnson and Ms. Quick share the important role of Finnegan, a certified therapy dog. In the courtroom, Finnegan creates a “stress free zone” for litigants. Through the eyes of a child, readers will understand the impact a therapy dog can have on reducing courtroom trauma.

FinneganIn an attempt to become a more trauma-responsive court, my dog Finnegan joined my staff a little over two years ago. He is a certified therapy dog. Every day I am amazed at how Finnegan reduces the stress of children, parents, and professionals. He eagerly but gently meets and greets everyone who comes to court. He senses if someone is sad or fearful and comforts them. He also joins in happy moments with a big, wagging feather-duster tail. Finnegan is probably one of the most petted dogs in the world. As much as I try to be a compassionate judge, he heals and soothes wordlessly.

Tammy Quick, a Supervisor for Douglas County CASA, writes below about an experience of one of our CASA youth with Finnegan. If you would like more information about having a therapy dog in court, please contact me.

Therapy Dog or Lion?

How therapy dogs can assist courtrooms in a “lion-sized” way

“Woof Woof!” That’s the sound many of us expect to hear when walking into a room where a dog is present. However, walk into a courtroom when a certified therapy dog is present and you will not hear barking. Instead you will notice a room with a calm, relaxed atmosphere and loving affection being given and received. Douglas County, Nebraska is fortunate that Judge Johnson brought his certified therapy dog, Finnegan, to Juvenile Court. As a CASA supervisor and volunteer, I have seen firsthand how Finnegan has helped youth, families, attorneys, and case professionals on various cases. The stress of some cases may have a family or a case professional nervous or adversarial. When Finnegan is noticed or even walks over to show that this a “stress free zone”, the entire atmosphere changes and those who are stressed typically are overcome by an overwhelming sense of calmness.

In August of 2013, I accompanied one of my youth to court as she was only seven years of age and about to testify against her foster parent and abuser, a biological aunt, in criminal court. The day started out as a terrifying one for her, so let’s walk in her shoes for a moment. This is her recollection of the event:

Judge Johnson and
Finnegan “The Lion”
- CASA child’s drawing

I’m seven years old and my CASA supervisor picks me up from daycare instead of me attending school today. I’m scared so we stop for donuts. I’m not hungry. She gets me two just in case I want one later. We are driving to court and I might see “Auntie Bad” there. I know I’m going to tell the truth, but I’m scared. We get to the courthouse… it is big! I see a lot of sheriffs but I don’t understand why. I don’t see any kids around. My GAL meets me there and everything seems like a pretty big deal to me but I’m not sure why. We meet an attorney (prosecutor) who says he will ask me a lot of questions. I get to peek into a big courtroom. It’s not like the one we go to in Juvenile Court. It looks scary. I’m not talking right now. I’m not sure what to say. We get to sit in a hallway as we wait. Reading books and playing is fun, but I want to know why there are so many police here and I ask if we can leave many times. My CASA supervisor says she will be right back. I’m scared and I don’t know the people around here. She comes back with a man (Judge Johnson) who brings his dog. A dog in the courthouse! I jump from my seat and give this dog a hug. They tell me the dog is named Finnegan. I’m excited to have him there and I’m ready now to share my story!

At seven years of age, this young girl was beyond her years but now knew she had the courage to testify. Finnegan calmed her fears. She went from seat bouncing and jittery to an immediately relaxed and ready youth. Almost a year and a half has passed since that day and when asked about it, she can remember all the details. She tells me I brought her a lion that day, a real live lion! You see, in her mind, she saw something scary about to take place and thought the lion would save her. Finnegan was her lion. He came to scare off “Auntie Bad” during her testimony. She says that Finnegan “helped me have all the bad stuff go away like my anger.” I saw a fluffy cuddly dog and she saw a ferocious lion to save her from her fears. She tells me she wishes to have a therapy dog in every courtroom, and I would have to agree. Therapy dogs bring about a sense of peace for all who are afforded the opportunity.

Editor's Note:

Judge Douglas Johnson and Finnegan won the 2014 Tina Durham Service Award from the Nebraska Humane Society. Watch a short video about their work.

Author biographies:

Judge Douglas F. Johnson is a 1987 Creighton University School of Law graduate. He was appointed to the Separate Juvenile Court of Douglas County, Nebraska in 1993. He is an adjunct professor of law at Creighton University School of Law, teaching juvenile law since 1995. 

He is a past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and is a long time member of its teaching faculty. Judge Johnson provides training on the resource and permanency planning guidelines, the Adoption and Safe Families Act, evidence, judicial ethics and leadership, court collaboration, the prehearing conference, Zero to Three family drug treatment court, reasonable efforts for infants and toddlers, Helping Babies from the Bench, and other topics. He is the founding lead Judge of the NCJFCJ’s Child Victims Model Court in Omaha. He has written numerous articles for the CASA Judges’ Page Newsletter since its inception in 2003, NCJFCS’s Today Magazine, and authored Chapter 14, Zero to Three Family Drug Treatment Court, in Clinical Work with Traumatized Children, Ed. Joy D. Osofsky (2011).

Tammy Quick graduated from Midland Lutheran College in 2006 with a bachelor's of arts degree in Elementary Education with an Endorsement in Early Childhood Education. She worked for five years as an assistant house parent at the Masonic Home for Children in Fremont, Nebraska during and after college. She later worked as a preschool teacher for a year and a half at Bright Horizons before working as service coordinator and family permanency specialist at KVC Behavioral Healthcare for two and a half years. Tammy has worked with CASA for Douglas County and been a CASA volunteer since January 1, 2012. She volunteers regularly for the Royal Family Kids Camps and Teen Reach Adventure Camps since the summer of 2009. Tammy also volunteers regularly for Camp Catch-Up since the summer of 2013.



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