In 2013, Connecticut made history by passing a bill that formally recognises the importance of including animals in mental health interventions when working with children coping with trauma and loss. It came in the aftermath of the devastating Sandy Hook Newtown shooting, when people from across the country brought their dogs to offer compassion to those who were mourning and in need of healing. Having seen how the presence of these animals gave a community relief in such a dark time, local government was ready to listen to a more integrated approach to mental health care. Whilst the dogs present at the Newtown memorial site had helped so many of the public, it was clear that this response needed to be formalised, to ensure that those affected were met by human-animal teams trained in dealing with trauma and loss.
The bill, ‘An Act Concerning Animal Therapy’, calls for a volunteer-led crisis response procedure to be established with local organisations, so that registered human and dog teams can be dispensed in each region of Connecticut within 24 hours of an emergency. It also outlines the structure of an animal-assisted therapy program to be set up by the Department of Children and Families to help children and youths under their care. This includes training DCF staff in the human-animal bond and the benefits of animal-assisted interventions, collaborating with mental health care providers to develop appropriate therapy plans that incorporate animals, and working with the Department of Agriculture to develop outcome measures and a results-based assessment of the work.
While this legislation signifies a huge step in the field of animal-assisted interventions, it has been no overnight success story and is far from a finished work. It has required intense collaboration from local organisations working with animals and trauma, who formed a committee to work on a proposal for the bill. I met with three of these organisations – Soul Friends, Tails of Joy and Animal-Assisted Therapy Services – and from each of them heard the same concern. Once the bill had passed through government, they found that though the notion of their recommendations was in place, changes had been made that left room for ambiguity in both the structure and the language used. As a result, since the passing of the bill there has been a much greater interest in animal-assisted interventions, but not necessarily a greater understanding of how and why they work.
As with any bureaucratic process, it is an ongoing one and this is clearly just the beginning. The committee has been in further discussions over the past year, pushing for a clarification of the differences between ‘animal-assisted therapy‘ and ‘animal-assisted activities’ to be written into the bill*. Although working with politicians was described to me as ‘feeling like two steps forward, one step back’, what is important is that this is now on the agenda. State Representative Diana Urban, the woman responsible for pushing this through senate, echoed this in saying,
‘We believe that an animal can be a conduit for a child to recover from trauma. That’s now a given – I don’t have to fight that anymore. Now, I want AAT to become an integral part of mental health policy in the State.’
What impressed me so much in listening to Representative Urban, Kate Nicoll (Soul Friends), Caroline Gaetano (Tails of Joy) and Chris Patella (AaTs) talk about the bill, was their passion and determination. These are people used to fighting their corner for what they believe in and they are not going to give up. Any weakness is merely an area that needs tweaking, any block is just an obstacle to overcome. Spending time with each of them and hearing what they’ve achieved, I was excited to see what can happen when a group of individuals work together for a common goal. Representative Urban made it very clear that this would not have happened without the cooperation of the community. Equally, it is clear it could not have happened without her as a driver.
Visiting projects in the USA and learning about such work has been a true privilege, yet has made me question, why am I not doing this in the UK? Hearing of the Conservative’s success back at home and the many questions and concerns this raises about the future of the UK’s health and social care system, it feels more relevant than ever to remember the power that comes from working together. It is so sad that it took such a horrific trauma for the Senate of Connecticut to start listening to the needs of the community, that the response from government was reactive rather than proactive. I hope that we can learn from this in the UK, that we can have the imagination and foresight to see how much can be achieved if we help each other and collaborate.
‘WHEN WE ALL CAME TOGETHER, WE SAW HOW MUCH WE COULD ACHIEVE IF WE TALKED TO EACH OTHER – IT’S A CRITICAL MASS THING.’
– State Representative Urban
This was the second week of visits investigating best practice in animal-assisted interventions across the world as part of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship. I will be producing a final report with my findings by the end of 2015. To find out more, check our newspage for updates.
Post by Ione Maria Rojas
*For more information on these terms, IAHAIO offer an excellent definition in their 2014 white paper.