A northern Illinois woman, Betty Peltier of Antioch, has pleaded guilty to stealing a therapy dog used to assist an autistic child. Peltier has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge as part of a plea agreement and must perform 100 hours of public service and be under court supervision for one year. Peltier is charging with taking a†Chihuahua, “Peanut,” when the dog wandered from its home, and not returning it to the boy’s family until the boy’s mother offered a reward.
In recent years, more and more families have found that therapy dogs have been a real support to their autistic children. The dogs can help soothe and calm an agitated child who may, like my teenage son, not be able to communicate distress. As suggested in recent news reports, it is not uncommon for autistic children to wander and therapy dogs can help keep a child safe, by alerting parents and others that a child — who may not have thought it was necessary to inform anyone that they are going on a very long walk — is “eloping.” Some autistic children are accompanied by their therapy dogs to school; some parents have had to sue a school district to ensure their child is able to have the dog with her or him.
Indeed, the University of Nebraska at Kansas was recently sued by the US Justice Department for failing to comply with the Fair Housing Act in the case of a student with disabilities, who was not allowed to live in campus housing with her therapy dog. The student relies on the dog to deal with her depression and anxiety. But the university cited the American with Disabilities Act and claimed that the “dog was a pet, not a service animal, such as a guide dog for the blind.” The Justice Department’s decision to sue the university indicates that “in its view, colleges must observe the broader requirements of the Fair Housing Act in such cases.”
That is, a therapy dog can be — is — simply essential for the day-to-day functioning of an individual with disabilities, just as someone who is blind depends on a seeing-eye dog.
The reports about Peltier stealing the Chicago-area autistic child’s therapy do not provide a lot of detail about her possible motives. Taking a therapy dog from a child with disabilities is a heartless and cruel act. The therapy dog, Peanut, was much needed by the boy, enough that his mother would offer a reward for the dog’s return. My own son relies on routines, on things being constant and familiar in his surroundings; while anyone would be alarmed at a missing pet, not having a therapy dog could be beyond devastating to an autistic child, with ramifications for the child’s family. I’m hopeful that, whatever form Peltier’s community service takes, some aspect of it might educate her about why her theft of the therapy dog was not simply ill-advised, but inhumane.
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