One of the new staff at Summit County Juvenile Court is shy and often hides under tables.
He also follows orders and is happy to hug people when they are feeling down.
His name is Tater Tot and he is a professional therapy dog who was hired a few months ago to provide comfort to young people during court proceedings.
Court workers, however, say the ‘hug boss’ has done more than that – helping not only the troubled young people the court serves, but also those who work there. Even Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio, one of the county’s most senior judges, warmed to the furry addition.
“That’s the best hug I’ve had in a long time!” she said on a recent afternoon after Tater Tot gave her one of his popular hugs.
Tater Tot is believed to be one of the only therapy dogs working in Ohio’s juvenile courts and with a Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program, which advocates for abused and neglected children.
Since Tater Tot began working in court in February, Teodosio has received calls from judges in several other major counties asking how they can get their own canine companions.
Geoff Auerbach, the CASA social worker who is the manager of Tater Tot, will be presenting on the benefits of having a therapy dog at a statewide conference later this year.
“We may have started a trend,” Teodosio said.
What led to the addition of doggie
Auerbach floated the idea of Tater Tot joining the juvenile court staff even before working there.
Auerbach was a CASA volunteer, then joined the staff as a social worker about a year ago.
Teodosio said she liked the idea right away, but COVID put it on hold because few people were in the building when concerns about the spread of the virus were at their peak. The judge decided to go ahead with the plans earlier this year when the courts began to reopen.
Auerbach received Tater Tot a year and a half ago as a graduation present. The dog, which is a border collie mix, was trained by Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education & Services as part of an inmate program at Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Kansas.
All of the dogs in Tater Tot’s class were given names by notable Kansas personalities, with Tater Tot’s original name being McCoy. Auerbach wanted to change that to a more kid-friendly nickname, and a friend suggested Tater Tot.
Tater Tot knows 56 commands which include some of the basics, such as sit, stay and come, as well as “hug”, which prompts the dog to jump up and put its front paws on a person’s shoulders when seated or squat. down.
Auberbach took Tater Tot with him on CASA-assisted youth visits and court hearings, including those in the RESTORE court, a program to help youth considered at risk of human trafficking.
After:Summit County Tackles Human Trafficking With New Court Program
Tater Tot in action
At a recent RESTORE hearing, Tater Tot went directly under the desk where a 17-year-old participant sat and sat at his feet.
“Hi,” she said to the dog, who seemed nervous because of the extra attention he was getting. “You’re okay.”
The Barberton teenager petted the dog as she listened to court staff and magistrate David Fish talk about how she was coping with the demands of the program.
The report was mostly positive. She had done well in school and would – with the help of summer school – move up to the next grade, had found a summer job at a bakery, and had had two negative drug tests after one positive.
Court staff cheered and clapped.
“We’ll be done with each other soon,” Fish told the teenager. “Where I met you and where you are now, you have come an extremely long way.”
When the teenager had a few tears, Tater Tot put her feet on her lap.
Fish told the teenager she was ready to graduate and said the ceremony would take place later in the week.
“I thought it was impossible,” she said. “I thought I was going to be in jail.”
The teen’s mother said she looked up to her daughter.
“Something inside me was like, ‘I’m an adult. I want to take my life back,’ the teenager said.
The teenager read her petition for graduation, in which she said she had stayed out of trouble, stopped hanging out with the wrong people and using drugs, and stayed home. task with the school.
After the hearing, the teenager said she enjoyed having Tater Tot with her during the hearings, especially in her early days on the show.
“Before everything was fine, he made me feel a lot better,” she said.
Future plans for Tater Tot
Tater Tot will soon have new tasks added to his to-do list.
Auerbach has taken him to visit young people in detention on a few occasions, but this will now become a regular stop for the duo.
The court has a therapy room for youth in custody that includes weighted blankets and coloring books. Three advisors are also available.
Teodosio thinks Tater Tot’s visit will be a great addition to help these young people. She said they were in custody because they had done something wrong, but “are still children”.
The court has also started allowing any staff member who has a youngster they believe would benefit from Tater Tot’s help to request a visit. Teodosio said the court would even change his plans to circumvent the dog’s availability.
Magistrate Amber Crowe recently requested a visit from Tater Tot for a youngster who needs to move to another house and leave behind the guinea pig he cares for. She said the youngster was delighted when he learned he would be meeting Tater Tot later this month.
“He’s the calm in the storm,” Crowe said of Tater Tot. “We meet these children at the worst time in their lives.”
Court staff showed Tater Tot how much they appreciate him by recently hosting an ice cream party on his fourth birthday. He received a baby pool filled with balls, a plush birthday cake and a visit from Avery, a therapy dog from the Summit County District Attorney’s Office who assists child victims during court proceedings in the court of Summit County Common Pleas.
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When Tater Tot isn’t partying or working, the dog can often be found expending energy behind the court building, with Auerbach throwing a Frisbee at him.
On a recent afternoon, the dog crouched down in anticipation and – after Auerbach threw a Frisbee in the air – pounced after the toy, trying to catch it before it hit the grass.
Youths in the fenced detention yard watched Tater Tot reach for the Frisbee, and a magistrate on his way to his car stopped to pet the pooch.
Auerbach, who has a special license plate that says “TATRTOT,” is pleased with the reception Tater Tot has received in court so far. He’s also happy for himself because he landed his dream job of helping young people while working with an animal.
“I keep thinking that someone will decide that it’s not real work, but it is – and it is beneficial work,” he said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at [email protected], 330-996-3705 and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.