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New Four-Legged Staff Member Helping Traumatized Children

August 25, 2023

Joan Neveski wants you to imagine being a child abused by someone you trust and sitting in a room at the Center for Youth and Families’ Child Advocacy Center (CAC).

“Yes, it’s a safe place, but you are with someone you just met and you are expected to talk about what happened to you,” says Neveski, clinical manager of the Center for Youth and Families at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital.

“Now,” she continues, “imagine you are in that same room, but with a quiet, soft, gentle friend at your side who has gone through specialized training to pick up on the stress signals and emotions of people. A service dog who loves people and will not leave your side, who is drawn to you and who is trained to support you on whatever level you are comfortable with, whether it be putting their head on your lap, curling up at your feet, or just sitting in the corner while you talk about the most difficult things you have ever had to talk about.”

That scenario doesn’t just live in the imagination, however. It’s real. Dani is a Portuguese water dog working three days a week at the CAC since June 5. The $200,000 raised at the hospital’s 21st annual golf tournament, supports pet therapy and overall youth mental health in the region.

New dog, experienced handler

Dani is around a year old and is new to helping children in trauma, but owner/handler Kevin Tieman is not, having recently retired from the Torrington Police Department as a detective specializing in sexual assault and abuse. He worked closely with CAC’s Child Abuse Investigation Team for many years and now works as its trauma response coordinator.

“Dani provides reassurance, comfort and peace to so many of our children,” Neveski, who is clinical manager of the Center for Youth and Families, says. “A forensic interview is just one of the many settings where a therapy dog can be present with a child. Dani can also be present in the room during forensic medical exams, court testimony, therapy sessions and community events.”

Neveski has wanted to add a dog to the staff for some time. She and Tieman talked, plans were made, and Tieman got a puppy and had her trained at Stonehill Kennel in Goshen as an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant service dog for PTSD and a therapy dog for children.

“Portuguese water dogs aren’t usually service dogs,” Tieman says, “but in a hospital-type environment, she’s perfect. She’s hypo-allergenic and doesn’t shed. She has silky hair, which is good for kids who have tactile issues.”

HHC’s only Child Advocacy Center

The Center for Youth and Families is home to Hartford HealthCare’s only accredited CAC. It is a licensed behavioral health clinic for children and families in northwestern Connecticut.

The facility provides a broad array of services to the community, including: the Child Abuse Multidisciplinary Investigation Team; child-specialized forensic interviews and forensic medical exams; evidenced-based trauma services; outpatient services; extended day treatment; adolescent intensive outpatient services; and case management for children and families through healing and court processes.

“We feel a strong community obligation to innovate and work to improve the resources for the children and families we serve as well as for the health and wellbeing of our staff,” Neveski says. “We believe that adding a new resource, such as the service/therapy dog and trauma response coordinator, will allow us to take our work to another level.”

She stresses there is an important side benefit to having Dani on staff.

“She is also an outlet/intervention for self-care for the clinical team members and front-line staff who are bombarded with hearing about traumatic events and managing acute behavioral and emotional situations on a daily basis,” she notes.

“We taught her to give ‘big hugs,’” Tieman says. “You crouch down and she’ll put her paws on your shoulders and give you a hug.”