Geoff Auerbach and his professional therapy dog, "Tater Tot," are a welcome sight in a place where people are often hurting.
"We're kind of meeting kids at the worst time of their lives. It goes for the parents, too. Nobody is in the court because they want to be here," Auerbach said.
Auerbach is a Guardian ad Litem with the Summit County Juvenile Court. The social worker is in court, for the kids, working on their behalf.
"I can't really hug clients, right? I can't hug kids, but as my avatar, Tater Tot, can. And one of his commands is hug," Auerbach explained.
"I've had kids kind of tear up when they get hugs and parents coming out of the courtroom, they'll see me and Tater Tot -- and stop in their tracks. And you just see them breathe a sigh of relief. They're just excited to have somebody there who's not judging them -- who's not invested in why they are here."
At the Juvenile Court, that usually means kids who have experienced trauma or abuse. Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio says in less than a year, Tater Tot is already making a difference.
"Tater Tot can very quietly sit under the table with a youth, who is going through a very stressful time hearing testimony from witnesses regarding an offense they're alleged to commit. And it provides them with some comfort. And I think take the stress level down. There's something about dogs' unconditional love for a person that, you know, really can make life a lot easier, even in the worst of certain circumstances," she said.
It was Teodosio who gave the green light for a therapy dog in juvenile court.
"My philosophy and my way of working in the court has always been the ability to take the good advice of people in our building who are smarter in their areas than I am. Geoff as a social worker, and Beth Cardina, who is head of our Court Appointed Special Advocate Guardian ad Litem program came to me and said, "We think this would be an excellent idea. It would help kids open up. That would help kids be able to better manage being at the Court House. And we think this is something that would really be effective. I deferred to their advice and I'm really glad that we did it. Its been wonderful," she said.
Auerbach became interested in therapy dogs while in graduate school. After spending time on a waiting list, he was matched with Tater Tot. The pup completed an 18-month training program through Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education and Services while being fostered by an inmate program participant at Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Kansas.
That training included learning more than 50 different signs. Auerbach also went through a training program to prepare him as Tater Tot's handler.
In addition to spending time in the court, Tater Tot spends time in the Juvenile Detention Center as well, offering hugs and companionship in the therapy room.
Even though Auerbach has his own CASA caseload, he is also afforded the flexibility to work with Restore Court on Mondays with Tater Tot. There, the team help youth who have been trafficked or who are at risk of being trafficked.
Their work has garnered attention around Ohio, and even outside the state. Auerbach has spoken at CASA conferences about Tater Tot's impact in the court. Judge Teodosio has also fielded calls from other judges, who are exploring the idea of following in Summit County's footsteps.
Tater Tot may be 3/4 Border Collie and 1/4 Labrador Retriever, but more importantly he is 100 percent a bundle of love, at a job where he's making a difference every day.
Editor's note: Video in the player above was originally published in an unrelated story on Jan. 23, 2023.