By Briana Vannozzi
Normally, 16-year-old Ben Shore says he’d feel a little anxious coming to a big meeting with lawmakers. But not with his best pal Charlie by his side. The half poodle, half golden retriever pup is a trained service dog. He helps Ben — who’s on the autism spectrum — get through high stress moments and he’s the inspiration for a potential new law.
“Charlie’s given me the independence that I need to be able to go out and do the things that I wanted to do. When before I would be scared to go or do things like that. I would never have been able to go to this meeting without him today,” Ben said.
If enacted, Charlie’s Law would impose fines on those denying access to someone with a service dog. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act allows service dogs to accompany their owners in public spaces. New Jersey law does, too. But that’s not what Ben encountered.
“Me and Charlie got denied access at an airport and I realized how easy it was with Florida state law making it a misdemeanor to deny access or request paperwork or do all this other stuff. I was like, wow, why don’t we have this in my state in New Jersey?” he asked.
Ben’s advocacy work really ramped up when he found his Cherry Hill school district’s policy was also in violation of the law. Charlie was barred from traveling on the school bus or entering school grounds. Ben says he wanted to bring Charlie to school to help quell panic attacks.
“He does, like, deep pressure therapy tactical disruption when I have panic attacks. He’s a great tool to help me out and he gives me independence that I need,” Ben explained.
Today an Assembly committee voted unanimously to move the bill forward.
“When they are questioned — because it does happen — that they have the immediate sort of repercussions that can happen, they can call law enforcement and law enforcement then know, OK, that this is a penalty, this is a crime,” said Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt.
Fines would start at $250 for a first offense and go all the way up to $1,000.
Money collected through the fines will go toward raising public awareness, both through education programs to train law enforcement on the rights of people with service dogs, and a campaign through the Attorney General’s Office to teach the public about the new rules.
“Anything that helps us to remove some of that medical treatment and maybe find alternative ways of helping Ben with the issues he has is a good thing. I’m not a big fan of medication. So, Charlie is definitely not medication,” said Eric Shore, Ben’s father.
The bill now heads for a full legislative vote where it’s expected to pass. Not bad for a boy and his dog.