Lake County's Simba is nation's first public defender's office dog
Lake County's Simba helps kids as the nation's first public defender's office dog
Move over, Mitch, Hitch and Browser. There's a new dog in town.
Simba, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever, is the newest facility dog assigned to Lake County courts and the first dog in the nation to be assigned to a county public defender's office.
Simba is assigned to the Lake County public defender's guardian ad litem office and has the job of bringing comfort to children at the Depke Juvenile Justice Complex near Vernon Hills.
A guardian ad litem from the public defender's office is an attorney appointed by a judge to protect the best interests of a child, mostly in cases of abuse and neglect.
"We are just so excited to have him here," said Keith Grant, a division chief at the office, who will serve as Simba's co-handler. "The ground on how to use dogs in court settings has already been walked on. This is just a new path we are following."
Simba is the fourth dog to be used by Lake County's legal system. The state's attorney's office uses Mitch and Hitch in court as comfort or facility dogs, while Browser works in the cyber crimes lab as an electronic detection canine.
Grant said CourthouseDogs.org maintains a list of certified and trained dogs placed in justice systems and has confirmed there is not another dog placed in a public defender's office.
Simba is a highly trained facility dog with one purpose: to bring comfort to those in need.
"His job is to be petted," said Assistant Public Defender and guardian ad litem Kathy Gordon, who will serve as Simba's main handler. "For a dog, it doesn't get much better than that."
Gordon said Simba is officially "at work" when he has his vest on. When he's working, he simply walks into a room, is given a command, lies down and lets people pet him.
"This will make their (the children's) world a little bit better," Gordon said.
When the vest is off, Simba is allowed to behave like a normal dog.
Grant said Simba hasn't been in service long, but he's been amazing when called upon.
For example, Grant said, two little girls were clearly nervous while standing in the lobby of the juvenile court building. Simba was brought out to greet them, and their faces lit up.
"The whole room disappeared for them," Grant said. "They petted him, then asked for paper and pens so they could draw him pictures."
Grant said the idea behind bringing Simba to the public defender's office came from watching how people interact with Mitch and Hitch.
He said children would calm down around adults when the dogs walked in, and they became more willing to open up when asked delicate questions.
"The children would be more forthcoming and relaxed when talking while Mitch was around," Grant said. "Then, we'd watch as that same child would be less willing to talk with us when we'd interview them.
"We always said if we had something like Mitch to help us ... and here we are."
Simba was donated and trained by Duo Dogs, a national nonprofit organization in St. Louis, Missouri, which also brought Mitch and Hitch to Lake County.
Simba's care is financed through donations and sponsorships from private sources, his food and treats are provided by Solid Gold Dog Food of St. Louis, and his veterinary care is provided by Dr. Derek Williamson at the Companion Animal Hospital in Vernon Hills, Grant said.
Public Defender Joy Gossman said Simba brings a calm and accepting presence to stressful situations at the Depke complex.
"As public defenders, we always strive to connect with all of our clients so that we can help them make the best decisions regarding their cases. Simba helps us to forge that connection," she said. "Sometimes something as simple as petting a friendly dog can make a big difference.
"We're looking forward to a long and positive partnership with Simba in our office."