By Kristen Lare on October 04, 2019
Watch the Justice Heals video
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Left to right: Tana Fedewa, LMSW; Marie Hopfensperger, DVM, DACVB; and Megan Spedoske, LMSW with Justice.

Michigan State University is proud to announce that three members of our community—Marie Hopfensperger, DVM, DACVB, with the College of Veterinary Medicine; Tana Fedewa, LMSW, director of the MSU Center for Survivors; and Megan Spedoske, LMSW, director of Veterinary Social Work Services with the School of Social Work—have been selected for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholars Leadership Program. The Clinical Scholars Program is designed for teams of experienced health care providers from varied disciplines to sharpen their leadership skills and collaborate on a project to address complex health problems. The program also allows them to gain new perspectives and expertise while extending their influence and impact as professionals and as trusted members of their communities.

With support of the Clinical Scholars Program, Hopfensperger, Fedewa, and Spedoske will combine their expertise to develop “Justice Heals,” a four-phase, animal-assisted intervention (AAI) program to pair survivors with shelter dogs. The Program will follow survivor-dog pairs from matching through adoption, with the potential for certification of dogs as emotional support animals (ESA), therapy dogs, and/or service dogs.

“Justice Heals will provide sexual assault survivors with another option to work through their trauma,” says Fedewa. “Our goal for survivors in this program is for them to feel less isolated, to reduce their trauma symptoms, and to feel more connected to and supported by our community.”

The inspiration for this program came from survivors and Justice, a canine advocate who works with survivors at the MSU Center for Survivors. Just like people, animals also suffer from trauma and many emotional and behavioral disorders. Justice is under the care of Dr. Hopfensperger, a veterinary behaviorist, for treatment of generalized anxiety. It became apparent that some survivors were engaged with and felt normalized by Justice’s behavioral health plan. Hopfensperger paired with the directors of the Center for Survivors and Veterinary Social Work Services to explore the reciprocal benefits of AAI for survivors on a wider scale.

“As a veterinary behaviorist, this program is a unique opportunity to look at the relationships that develop between sexual assault survivors and shelter animals during the healing process,” says Hopfensperger. “This approach allows us to create programming that is mutually beneficial for both populations."

Michigan State University is uniquely positioned to develop this program because of the expertise and resources available on campus: an established Veterinary Social Work Program, a Center for Survivors, and a Veterinary Behavior Service. This collaboration is an opportunity to create a wide-reaching program that not only aids in the recovery for survivors on campus, but also has the potential to expand beyond the University to any community.

“As a veterinary social worker, I’m excited about this collaboration and opportunity to deepen my work with the human-animal bond and animal-assisted interactions,” says Spedoske. “Justice Heals will focus on supporting a trauma-informed, mutually beneficial relationship between survivors and shelter animals. I’m grateful for this amazing opportunity to tackle serious issues, while growing as a leader.”

Justice Heals plans to use a One Welfare model to measure the effectiveness for engaged survivors and participant dogs, with the goal to translate this model to any community that has shelter dogs in need and survivors who could benefit.

“The Clinical Scholars program is a unique and intensive leadership development opportunity,” says Hopfensperger. “As a Spartan, I am very excited to develop leadership skills, so I can be an advocate for change at MSU.”