Therapy dog Hope calms youth offenders to help keep wheels of justice turning

Hope for Our Children volunteer Christine Bartlett, handler Vanessa Curtis and Member for Toowoomba South David Janetzki MP with Hope the therapy dog.

With her curly black coat and soft floppy ears, Hope the therapy dog is bringing an unprecedented wave of calm to the usual volatile sittings of Toowoomba’s Childrens Court.

The three-year-old Labradoodle has been trained to help soothe abused children while they give evidence to police or the court.

However, until she receives her first official call to duty, she is using her calming presence to deescalate the behaviour of youth offenders in the lobby as they wait to appear in the city’s Childrens Court on Thursdays.

Toowoomba mother-of-five Vanessa Curtis is Hope’s handler and said it had been amazing to watch how quickly the youths’ demeanour changes once Hope walks in.

“They are waiting in the lobby for hours, waiting to be called in, and they start pushing and shoving each other,” Mrs Curtis said.

“Then the security guards step in but that just makes it worse because they are an authoritarian figure.

“I said ‘hey guys, anyone here like dogs?’ and approached with Hope and all these big tough teenagers – charged with all sorts of serious crimes – just dropped to the floor and were smooching the dog.

“Everyone thought it was amazing and security backed away.”

Member for Toowoomba South David Janetzki MP said Mrs Curtis and Hope’s volunteering had made a marked difference to the weekly Childrens Court sittings over the past five weeks.

“Magistrates, police, security and staff have commented how much of a positive difference Vanessa and Hope’s presence makes,” Mr Janetzki said.

“A dog’s love is unconditional, and they are nonjudgmental,” he said.

“Hope’s presence allows these youth to lower their guard, which makes the courthouse safer for everyone.”

Mrs Curtis’ sister Nadine Wright is the founder of Hope for Our Children which raises awareness for the plight of foster children in Toowoomba.

Mrs Curtis said her sister highlighted the fact that children who had been abused or neglected were at greater risk of committing crimes and entering the youth justice system. Young people involved in the child protection system are 12 times more likely than other children to be under youth justice supervision.

“Some of these kids have lived through a life of trauma and are now facing the consequences,” Mrs Curtis said.

“They weren’t born as little babies who couldn’t wait to start graffitiing and stealing cars,” she said.

“I find the boys in particular are responding really well to Hope, she is a positive distraction for them.”