MIAMI – More than 70,000 teens and young children are living in juvenile detention centers in the United States. While that number has declined in the past decade, those who find their way to these facilities still struggle with a host of emotional issues.
Miami-Dade Juvenile Detention Center now has a groundbreaking program that is helping kids cope, using man's best friend.
Justice, a 2-year-old Labrador and Great Dane mix, came to the center in January.
"He provides them with unconditional love, companionship -- something that won't judge them," said Superintendent Daryl Wolf.
As the centerpiece of a unique new program, Justice is helping reduce physical tension and emotional stress.
"He makes me smile," said Hakeem, one of the young men at the center. "When I am stressed out, he makes me laugh."
At 110 pounds, Justice has plenty of size and stamina to keep up with the 80 teenagers at the facility. In fact, he had too much energy at first.
We had to channel that and stop him from jumping so that the kids can enjoy him going outside," said trainer Richard Heinz. "So now he runs out there. He plays with them. He doesn't jump on them or knock them over anymore,"
Justice has become a friend to the teens. Providing a listening ear and letting them vent their emotions. Officials say since Justice came on board the use of "isolation" for bad behavior has dropped by 50 percent.
"He makes me just push stuff back, like all the things I think about," said Tashiumbe, another teen at the center. "He just makes me push it back and just think about what happens for today."
Canine Comfort is a pilot program. Wolf found Justice, who at one time was set to be euthanized.
"I rescued Justice and he's now rescuing kids. It's like an innate sense of love that he just dishes out every single day," she says.
"I thought I would never have a lot of feelings for a dog like this. So now he has changed me. Now I care about like dogs and stuff," said Yasmany.
Juvenile Justice officials say it costs about $3500 to care for Justice a year. The money is coming from grants. Wolf says that money is well spent, and that Justice is worth his weight in gold.
Things are going so well with Justice, they already have a dog for Naples and Southwest Florida. And plans are moving ahead to put a therapy dog in all juvenile facilities across the entire state.