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Agency files lawsuit seeking to “repossess” handicapped priest’s retired service dog

A Pennsylvania service dog agency is suing an Episcopal priest with cerebral palsy to force her to give up the service dog she has had since 2007.

So reports the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

The Rev. Claire Wimbush says it’s unlikely she could continue living on her own without Willa, a 10-year-old yellow Labrador retriever provided to her through Canine Partners for Life, a Cochranville, Pa.-based agency that says it wants the dog back for reasons not fully specified.

Canine Partners filed suit last month in Pennsylvania Supreme Court, accusing Wimbush of violating her dog care contract and asking the court to order the dog’s return — along with “reimbursement of all costs and expenses, including legal and court fees.”

Darlene Sullivan, executive director of Canine Partners, declined to comment on the specifics of Wimbush’s case, according to the Democrat and Chronicle. The newspaper is owned by Gannett Co. Inc., and the Rev. Wimbush is the daughter of Gannett Vice President Jane Ann Wimbush.

According to the lawsuit, the Rev. Wimbush did not follow the agency’s training rules, including those that require recipients of  its dogs to maintain contact through follow-up reports. 

“If on repeated occasions there are problems with compliance, we will place that person on probation and they will get a letter explaining everything about why and letting them know if there are further violations they will lose their dog,” the agency’s director said. “If it gets to that point, and they refuse to return the dog to us, we have no choice but to take legal action.”

The Rev. Wimbush said she believes the agency wants Willa back because she was late turning in paperwork about the dog’s health and behavior. She said the documents were mailed on March 25, but Canine Partners didn’t get them by the April 2 deadline. An email from the agency came on April 4, saying arrangements needed to be made for the dog’s return. Six days later, she says, she received a letter telling her to bring Willa to the airport for “repossession.”

wimbushandwilla“I’m bewildered by this,” said Wimbush, who who has spastic cerebral palsy quadriplegia and uses a motorized wheelchair for mobility. Wimbush served as Curate of Christian Education at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Rochester from 2011 until last weekend, and is now planning to move back to her native Virginia to be closer to her mother.

On a website supporting her campaign to keep the dog, claireandwilla.com, the Rev. Wimbush notes that Willa’s status changed in February, 2012, when she retired from being a service dog and became a home companion dog:

“My ministry had changed; I was no longer moving from place to place over the course of a day, so I didn’t need her to help me carry things and open doors as often. The Rochester winters are tough on both of us. She was nine years old, almost ten; it seemed like the right time to make a change. Since her retirement, she gets to be petted and admired by all the members of my congregation, especially the elementary school crowd. She still goes with me to the church most days, and often accompanies me when I visit parishioners in animal-friendly retirement communities…”

The reverend admits to having had trouble keeping up with the agency’s required paperwork in 2007, due to illness. The lawsuit says she has had a history of not complying with those requirements. In 2009, the suit says, Wimbush was placed on “permanent probation” and told that any future violations would result in the immediate loss of the dog.

On the Facebook page of Canine Partners for Life, the agency is taking some lumps for filing the lawsuit against the handicapped priest, and some commenters are saying it is “shameful” for it to be demanding the dog back.

“What part of ‘for life’ am I missing?” one person wrote.

It’s unusual for an agency like Canine Partners to demand a dog be returned, according to Toni Eames, president of the International Association of Assistant Dog Partners, an advocacy group of people with guide, hearing and service dogs.

“It’s a very legitimate agency, and there has to be something, mistreatment of the dog, neglect, maybe it has gained a tremendous amount of weight or there’s abuse, there‘s got to be something. Filing papers late is not a reason to demand return of a dog,” she told the newspaper.

Marsha Sweet, assistant director of independent living services for the Center for Disability Rights in Rochester, knew of only two such cases, and both times an agreement was reached allowing the person to keep the dog. “Usually, the agencies really try to remedy the situation,” she said.

The Rev. Wimbush hopes that might still happen, and an agreement can be worked out.

“I would do anything, anything, to keep my dog,” she said.

(Photo: ClaireandWilla.com)


Comment from Sandra white
Time June 6, 2013 at 8:01 pm

This is insane. I am on my second service dog. I have private traine, who graduated from Cornell university. When you are illl the last thing you need is an agency bothering you. This is the height of cruelty

Comment from Elizabeth Kaplan
Time June 7, 2013 at 7:45 am

The agency, Canine Partners for Life, provided the service dog to make this person’s life easier and now they’re making it harder or trying to completely ruin it by taking the dog away? This makes no sense.

Comment from Wendsong
Time July 24, 2013 at 8:57 am

If the dog is retired, it seems to me Canine Partners for Life should be paying Reverend Wimbush to care for the aging dog. It can’t go to another disabled person because it’s service life is passed. What will they do with it, except put it in foster care and forget it? Cum on Canine, the dog has been there it’s whole life. Let it be.

Comment from Kathy
Time September 22, 2013 at 2:02 pm

The rules and obligations for receiving ANY dog from Canine Partners for Life are very clear and are written and agreed to by all recipients. The rules are there to protect all of the dogs from possible neglect and abuse. As a disabled person, I am disgusted by the excuse of poor health for a problem that has lasted for years. I know, absolutely, that CPL will work with anyone to resolve personal issues. Wimbush is using money and misplaced sympathy to cause a scene in which she is the victim. Please go to the effort of learning about a dedicated service provider before you let your emotions be played on by a charlatan.

Comment from Annmarie Zan
Time April 30, 2014 at 10:51 pm

I have known of only 4 cases were an agency has tried to take an animal away for late papers and all four of them have been Canine Partners. This is just another way that Darlene tries to abuse her dogs and their partners. I am fighting the same thing now.

Comment from Kristin
Time February 20, 2015 at 8:25 pm

Although their website indicates that the initial meeting may occur via Skype or other electronic means if you live far aware, don’t buy it. That should have been my first red flag. I live in CO, but I sucked it up and made the trip out for my 1 hour interview and tour of their facilities. I was put on the waitlist immediately, and 4 months later was offered a dog, to be received following completion of training in June. I began fundraising from strangers, my company executives and my fellow colleagues. Then, 2 weeks later I received a big packet in the mail with multiple other forms and a list of items required to be brought to training, some of which were name brand specific. A raincoat was suggested and doggie boots were required on the list. I spent hours filling in all of the paperwork, and turned it all back the very next day. I indicated that I had left comments on CPL’s Agreement because it indicates that they own the dog and at all times and can demand it back for a variety of reasons, one of which is when the dog is ready to retire. I requested to have the first right to keep Topper as a pet after her years of service with me were deemed by CPL to be complete. Another item to discuss was their ability to take Topper from me if I put their vest and harness on another dog or if I had any other harness or vest on Topper without their insignia. I asked that the Agreement state that instead of taking Topper away, that I would agree to cease this behavior, if it occurred. If the dog is ever returned, or if CPL demands the dog back, as the owner, no money is refunded.

Ive spent the last 2 days scouring the internet and spent $300 buying all of the requested items on their list (brand name and all) except the doggie boots. I posted on my fundraising page that part of the additional $300 expenses I needed donated included the boots and name brand items, which I questioned the immediate necessity of. It WAS a question, but my bad for posing it publicly to my donors I was asking to fund. Apparently CPL stalks your internet presence because they saw the post. Fast forward to 2 days later:

This morning CPL’s program director indicated that no changes could be made to the Agreement and that because of my post concerning the boots and the raincoat that they would NOT place Topper or any other dog with me because my communication would not make for a successful dog/human partnership.

I immediately left a voicemail and a follow up email to the Program Director indicating that my Agreement comments were for discussion, not hardline changes and that now that I understood the need for the items, I would be purchasing them immediately. I also informed her that I had already expended the costs of the items and nonrefundable airfare, as well as had my employer jumping through tons of hoops for accommodation (which has caused major, irreparable rifts with my colleagues) I offered, and did remove the offending post, however she emailed me back this evening to say that despite having the cost of the dog covered and these expenses, she was not comfortable placing a dog with me. Period. No further discussion. Not even the courtesy of a phone call in either instance. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black for improper “communication”.

Since then I have found many other complaints against CPL for demanding the return of dogs, etc. on several sites, so I guess this is for the best. See ripoff.com and other scam warning sites. Now I am out hundreds of dollars, and my reputation marred before generous strangers and donors. Im ashamed I defended CPL when others were attacking them on other public forums.