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Family Visits
In Oregon prisons, therapy dogs help close the gap between parent and child
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Dogs and Handlers

While Rachel’s husband, Sean, did his time at Columbia River Correctional Institute (CRCI), a minimum-security prison in Oregon, she struggled to maintain the parent-child bond between him and their three children. She brought them to the monthly family visits, but the atmosphere was austere, controlled and, for kids, dull. Families sat on metal benches around a table, and several families shared one large, noisy dining hall under the watchful eye of guards.

For Rachel, precious bonding time was often spent keeping her youngest, a fiveyear- old girl with Down syndrome, from fidgeting. The older children, ages nine and 13, distracted themselves, asking permission to go to the bathroom or the vending machine. Rachel often had to cut short the family’s visits.

All that began to change about a year ago, when therapy dogs became part of CRCI’s “Children’s Events,” special occasions for the families of inmates participating in parenting classes. Sean and other inmates involved in the parenting program constructed a brightly painted and decorated room specifically for family events, so that the setting might be homier. “Having the kids’ area was way better; no metal chairs anymore. Earlier, it was more restrictive than school!” he recalls now from the comfort of his home, reunited with his family after completing his sentence.Rachel agrees, and also mentions how much the therapy animals who were part of the family events helped their youngest daughter.“She’d talk about the animals for a week after each visit. They helped the older kids as well—got ’em away from the vending machine!”

Rachel saw her developmentally disabled daughter blossom around the dogs. “Animals help her communicate, mellow her out.We have three cats at home, and just got a Beagle. My daughter is learning to say ‘Good boy!’ and ‘Awesome!’ and give our dog positive reinforcement.” During the family events, both kids and parents learn how to interact with pets. “They teach gentle ways of interacting, because most inmates are abusers, or had been abused—that’s why they’re there— and the program teaches them how to pet rather than smack or pull a tail,” said Rachel.

This innovative program—putting volunteers with therapy animals into prisons during special parenting events —is the brainchild of three creative and compassionate women who blended several resources and programs to create a brand-new vision.

Rozlyn Gorski had the initial idea. She is involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters in Portland,Ore., and works with a subset of kids, Children with Incarcerated Parents. She knows how stressful and difficult maintaining a positive parent-child bond can be when a parent is incarcerated.

Gorski knows Heather Toland of DoveLewis, a Portland-area nonprofit emergency animal hospital with a large community-outreach and animal-welfare component.Toland is director of the Animal Assisted Therapy and Education program at DoveLewis. When Gorski wondered aloud if therapy dogs could help the kids she worked with, Toland quickly grasped the value of the idea, and signed on to help.

Gorski’s idea had merit. Toland possessed the ability to procure and train the volunteer handlers and dogs. But how to get them integrated into the prison family visits? Enter Dawnell Kirk,Western Regional Manager for Pathfinders, a nonprofit organization that contracts with the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide parenting classes to inmates. Pathfinders is also a community partner with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Kirk immediately saw the advantages of adding therapy animals to the family events, visits that were already a reward to inmates participating in parenting classes. Inviting the animals upped the reward ante significantly for the inmates, while also providing a clear therapeutic benefit to the families.

Kirk went to CRCI administration and asked, “What about bringing in some animals?”She then worked with the security manager to do just that. “They were so supportive,” she remembers. “We got the dogs in. They were a huge hit. The kids adore them. One gentleman said it was the first time he’d petted a dog in 10 years. It’s a nice place for children to learn to be with pets,”she says.“It’s a really good bonding moment for incarcerated parents and kids. Something to talk about with each other.”

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