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Rooster, an adorable Midlothian puppy born with a cleft palate, will compete on this year's Puppy Bowl

Rooster, an adorable Midlothian puppy born with a cleft palate, will compete on this year’s Puppy Bowl.

“He is so sexy,” said his rescue mom, Adri Herron, laughing. “I tell him all the time, ‘You’re a sexy hunk.’ ”

At the filming of the Puppy Bowl in New York in October, Rooster was 14 weeks old with floppy ears, and he was so cute, Herron said, “his feet never hit the floor. This was a room full of 100 puppies, and that’s a testament to how adorable he is. There was a line of people waiting to hold Rooster. He was the hit parade.”

Modeled on football’s Super Bowl, the Puppy Bowl brings together 96 adoptable dogs from over 60 shelters across the country to compete as Team Fluff and Team Ruff in a mini-plastic-glass stadium. The point: to showcase rescue dogs and help them get adopted.

Rooster, like many of the dogs on the Puppy Bowl, is already adopted. But how he came to be adopted is a story in and of itself.

Herron runs Sanctuary Rescue, a Midlothian rescue that specializes in neonate and orphan puppies. It also specializes in puppies born with special needs, like clefts.

Rooster was born in Florida, the fifth cleft puppy born to an American bully breeder.

“The breeder had always insisted that he could raise the puppies himself, but they would die within a week,” Herron said. “Puppies with cleft palates need to be tube-fed, which is a specialty. This time, he decided to sign him over to the veterinary technician.”

Herron stumbled across a photo of Rooster on Facebook and fell in love because he reminded her of Goosie, a puppy mascot of Sanctuary Rescue who died suddenly in July.

Goosie was a 15-month-old pit bull born with a severe cleft lip that made it look as if she didn’t have a nose. She was given to Sanctuary Rescue at 1-day-old and became something of a celebrity through the rescue’s Facebook page.

Goosie had a winning, feisty personality and became Facebook-famous with the rescue’s more than 28,000 followers. She was featured on InsideEdition.com and on People.com.

“We were obsessed with her. Everybody loved her. Hundreds of people came to her birthday party,” Herron said.

But at 15 months, Goosie died unexpectedly. Herron said the rescue staff was heartbroken.

“There was like this dark cloud hanging over us. Everybody was really sad, mopey and broken-hearted,” she said. “We’re a rescue that deals with puppies. We can’t be like that.”

When she saw the picture of Rooster, he looked so much like Goosie — with his cleft palate and gray-brown coat — that she knew she had to have him.

She reached out multiple times to the vet tech to whom the breeder had given Rooster, until finally, the tech relented and let Sanctuary Rescue adopt him.

“He’s our ambassador,” Herron said. “We take him everywhere. He attracts a crowd wherever we go. We say, ‘He’s a rescue. Let me tell you how great rescue dogs are.’ He shows people that different is beautiful. He’s proof that special-needs dogs can be just as wonderful as any others.”

The Puppy Bowl will air on Animal Planet on Sunday. Two other Virginia puppies, Killian and Kismet from the Green Dogs Unleashed rescue in Troy, will also be competing.

Puppies from the Richmond area have appeared on the Puppy Bowl for the past few years. Once a shelter has provided a puppy for the show, Animal Planet often reaches out again and again.

At 6 months old, Rooster still has those floppy ears, but now he’s got big paws and wears a black muscle T-shirt around town.

He eats regular puppy food but has to drink water out of a special bowl. Because of his cleft, food regularly gets stuck in his cleft and has to get cleaned out.

“He doesn’t always have the freshest breath,” Herron said.

Otherwise, she said, he’s healthy and thriving at 23 pounds. He might get up to 35 pounds when he reaches full size.

“Some dogs with cleft palates need surgery and some don’t,” Herron said. The rescue has decided to get his cleft palate fixed in March because he’s contracted several sinus infections, she said.

“He’s really such a character,” she added. “So loving, so social — other than his terrible breath. We call him the MVC — most valuable clefty.”


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Schapiro: A year after blackface calamity, Northam moves light years ahead

A year ago Saturday, it appeared to some in the cramped echo chamber that is the Jefferson-designed state Capitol that only hours remained in Ralph Northam’s governorship; that he would be run off after 13 months by a racial imbroglio that had instantly transformed the pediatrician into a pariah and restored the Old South guise of a Virginia that is now a multihued suburban colossus.

But the folksy Democrat — through steely resolve and a forgiving electorate more concerned about health care, guns and a Republican president they regard as reckless — remains in office, his popularity and power largely restored. It is allowing him to focus on an emerging legacy of activist government rather than just damage control over grainy images of privileged whites in blackface or worse.

“What has changed?” Sen. Mamie Locke, the African American retired professor from Hampton who leads the Senate Democratic Caucus and usually refers to the governor as “Ralph,” asked as she hurried to a committee hearing. “What has changed is the change that came over this commonwealth in November.”

And, said Locke — whose nephew with ADHD was successfully treated by Northam 22 years ago, allowing her to forge a personal bond with Northam before a political one — voters “saw the bigger picture.”

A governor who has said he believes in second chances, Northam is on his third.

He opened in 2018 with wins on Medicaid, road taxes and criminal-justice reform, with support from a Republican majority that had stoutly resisted all three.

Next was the blackface calamity that erupted Feb. 1, 2019, shaking Northam’s confidence, forcing him to acknowledge a life of white entitlement and establishing racial equity as a top priority of his administration.

Complicating this: sexual assault allegations against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring’s own blackface moment, both popping up immediately after Northam’s headache. That raised the possibility all three would be gone in short order, turning the governorship over to a Republican, then-Speaker Kirk Cox, since dispatched in November to the back benches.

In the early months of 2020, Northam, with the backing of restored Democratic majorities in the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate, is moving purposefully on matters substantive and symbolic: post-Virginia Beach gun control, abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, transportation financing and erasing vestiges of Jim Crow.

In the process, Northam is restoring a perception of him as a governor of consequence that was taking root two years ago — during the first General Assembly session of his nonrenewable four-year term. It would be overshadowed in the second session by his embarrassment, his clunky response to it and the demands of fellow Democrats that he resign.

This is easily overlooked, too, because of his modest manner — one that recalls another understated Democrat with rural roots who would harness the political power of metropolitan Virginia for surprising policy advances and, like Northam, showed no interest in elective office beyond the governorship: Jerry Baliles.

“The governor has made an amazing recovery and he’s done it by doing his job,” said Ben Dendy, an influential lobbyist who, in an exchange of text messages with Northam in the early hours of the blackface scandal, urged him to hang tough despite “very bad advice” from Twitter-jittery aides that compelled Northam to speak out before the facts were in.

The governor’s office functioned efficiently despite the crisis engulfing Northam. There were no resignations by angry or disappointed staff members. Though it clearly was not business as usual, administration officials continued engaging legislators and lobbyists, often at the micro-level.

“That’s been our focus all year — facing everything head on,” said Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff. “We’ve all learned a lot, especially about the type of leader we work for. Rarely do you see an elected official admit a mistake and commit to listening, learning, and acting to do better. In fact, in Washington, D.C., we are taught to do the polar opposite.”

Tom Lisk, another veteran lobbyist, recalled contacting Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran about a Republican-sponsored bill that would allow a Lisk client to manufacture switchblade knives in Virginia. Lisk said he promptly heard back from Moran; that they discussed Northam’s concerns about the bill, which he would ultimately veto because of safety concerns.

Lisk attributes the calm-despite-the-storm approach to Northam himself.

“It’s the VMI experience. You soldier on — mission forward,” said Lisk, referring to Northam’s alma mater, where the governor would decline an invitation to speak at the 2019 commencement, fearing that protesters who had staked out Capitol Square, calling for his resignation, would track him to Lexington.

The controversy also created opportunity, some of it dumb luck.

The defeat in a House subcommittee of Sen. Bill Stanley’s proposal to end suspensions of the driver’s licenses of Virginians who fail to pay court fines and penalties — a rule with a racial dimension because it affects large numbers of minorities — would lead to a Northam budget amendment that temporarily stopped the practice.

Stanley, a Republican from rural Franklin County and among Northam’s closest friends in the Senate, said the amendment emerged from private conversations with the governor “about redemption — and how you find meaningful redemption in a four-year term that is not one incident but a body of work.”

Stanley is the rare Republican who refused to join the Northam-must-resign chorus. That included some minority Democrats, too. Among them: Del. Jay Jones of Norfolk, whose district overlaps Northam’s old Senate seat.

An otherwise-quiet Friday afternoon near the midpoint of the 2019 legislative session became a high-decibel political death watch as Northam was confronted with — and awkwardly struggled to explain — a photograph from his page in a 1984 medical school yearbook of a man in blackface and someone in Ku Klux Klan-like robes.

Though Northam expressed ignorance of the photo’s provenance, he first apologized for appearing in the image, but the next day declared he was neither of the individuals in it. Northam was swamped with demands he resign, having compounded his difficulties by volunteering during a cringeworthy news conference at the Executive Mansion that in 1984 he attended a dance contest in Texas as Michael Jackson, using black shoe polish to darken his face.

For Republicans, who still can’t explain why they failed to unearth the yearbook picture ahead of the 2017 election Northam won convincingly over Ed Gillespie, Northam’s winter of discontent seemed an opportunity to rally their dispirited party and perhaps retain control of a legislature they had dominated almost-uninterrupted for 20 years.

“It was an opportunity, but our party is so focused on infighting and purity tests,” said Del. Terry Kilgore, a Southwest Virginia Republican who led the House committee that oversees big business and broke with GOP orthodoxy to support Northam’s proposal to fully extend the Affordable Care Act to Virginia. Kilgore went on to say, “The party is in shambles.”

That seemed the case with Democrats a year ago.

Democrats, from the courthouse to the statehouse and those aspiring to the White House — among them, Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe — yowled in disbelief over Northam’s perceived racial insensitivity, worrying it would alienate African American voters who are a pillar of the party.

Anecdotal and empirical evidence showed otherwise; that while disappointed with Northam, minority voters — especially those middle-aged and older and attuned to the nuanced history of race in the South — were sticking with him. These were voters who helped deliver the legislature for Democrats, installing majorities that stand largely to Northam’s left.

This means more pressure on the governor on issues he and fellow centrists would just as well avoid: a proposed repeal of the prohibition on union membership as a condition for employment and eliminating obstacles to public employee unions and collective bargaining. But liberals need Northam, too, to sign their bills and support their re-election.

Thus, legislators and Northam don’t have to like each other — not after the trauma of 2019. But they do have to understand each other.

Even Republicans get that.

“Forgiveness is an amazing thing,” said Sen. Todd Pillion of Washington County, before ducking into a closed meeting of the Senate Republican Caucus. “Short memories are even more amazing.”


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VISITATION PROPOSAL
Levine's guardianship visitation bill killed by Virginia Bar Association opposition

A bill proposed by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, aimed at giving loved ones stronger rights to challenge visitation restrictions imposed by the legal guardian of an incapacitated person was killed for the third straight year Friday after last-minute opposition from the Virginia Bar Association.

Levine had spent a year working with a stakeholder group that included elder law attorneys, the National Guardianship Association, AARP and Adult Protective Services, among others, to craft a bill that was acceptable to everyone. The bill was originally inspired by a constituent’s experience of being banned from visiting his longtime partner by her guardian.

But when Levine’s bill was heard in front of the House Courts of Justice Civil Subcommittee on Wednesday night, Shannon Laymon-Pecoraro, an elder law attorney representing the Virginia Bar Association — a nonprofit for attorneys focused on legislative advocacy — raised several objections and asked that the bill be delayed another year.

Language in the bill would shift the burden of proof for restricting visitation onto the guardian imposing it. It would allow the guardian to impose a seven-day restriction on someone the guardian believed to pose threat of significant harm to the person under guardianship, but also would allow the restricted person to challenge the restriction in court with an expedited hearing. In that hearing, the judge would have to find “clear and convincing evidence” that the restriction is warranted, and would have to consider limiting the restrictions as much as possible while preventing harm to the incapacitated person.

The bar association said in a list of reasons for opposing the bill: “There should be a fundamental trust and presumption that the guardian will take the appropriate action to [carry] out his duties. The bill as introduced creates a presumption against the guardian based on isolated incidents.”

The bar association also said that the bill should shift the burden of proof onto the restricted person to verify that the guardian’s decision to ban them from visiting a loved one was not warranted, rather than the other way around.

Levine said that the bar association’s proposals would make Virginia law worse for family members wanting to visit people under guardianship and would provide more protection to guardians.

“They did present me a measure that would take Virginia law and make it much, much harder for people to visit their family members with Alzheimer’s — harder than what is in current law, and said, basically, ‘take it or leave it,’ ” Levine told the subcommittee Friday afternoon. “These people do not want reform.”

Jeff Palmore, legislative counsel for the Virginia Bar Association, said that the association had attempted unsuccessfully to work with Levine since Wednesday’s subcommittee meeting to see if its concerns could be addressed.

“Whenever a guardian has been appointed, balancing the interests of the individual who requires a guardian and the interests of that person’s loved ones are very sensitive issues,” Palmore said in an email. “The VBA is solely focused on improving the law and making sure that the appropriate balance is reached in order to protect the person who cannot speak for themselves.”

Because Levine was not able to get the Virginia Bar Association on board, the subcommittee killed the bill in a 5-2 vote.

“I’m devastated,” said Yolanda Bell, a Manassas resident who said she was restricted from visiting her sister by a court-appointed professional guardian after she reported that she believed that her sister was being abused at her nursing home. “No one seems to care that people are being harmed, and people are being killed, they’re dying. … They’ve taken away that extra set of eyes [of family members]; it makes the abuse and all of that easier for it to happen.”

A Richmond Times-Dispatch three-part investigative series into guardianship revealed that VCU Health System and other health care providers were taking low-income patients to court and requesting that their own attorney be appointed the patient’s guardian. The guardianship orders gave the hospital’s attorney control over the patient’s medical decisions and finances.

Ten experts in the fields of guardianship, medical ethics, law and disability rights said that the arrangement of having the attorney representing hospitals and nursing homes also serving as guardian raises concerns about how independently he can look after the interests of the people placed under his guardianship.

“In my view, it’s not the professional lawyers that need more protection, it’s the incapacitated people — when an incapacitated person gets a guardian they lose all their rights,” Levine said. “It has long been my belief that the only protection an incapacitated person has is the eyes and ears and good wishes of their family members, their loved ones, their friends.”

Levine said that he was disappointed that the objections were raised at the last minute rather than being communicated to him during the lengthy process that included representatives from various organizations.

Palmore said that the Virginia Bar Association was not aware of Levine’s bill while the stakeholder meetings were going on.

“We aren’t trying to sabotage anything,” Palmore said. “We just want to make sure good policies get enacted for the people of the commonwealth.”

Levine says that he doesn’t see a way forward for the legislation next year but is hopeful that a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study that he proposed, along with Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, could help shed light on a guardianship system that he says is broken.


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Only 16 of 122 Virginia hospitals are equipped for sexual assault forensic exams. Lawmakers aim to change that.

Legislation to help sexual assault survivors get improved access to forensic examinations and other services is making its way through the General Assembly this year.

A shortage of qualified nurses and facilities in Virginia sometimes means traumatized assault victims must travel from hospital to hospital, or for hours and hundreds of miles to have evidence of the attack properly collected for authorities.

Rebecca Courtright, a rape survivor, on Wednesday urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance a bill sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath — one of two pending bills that would create a Virginia Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Coordination Program within the Department of Criminal justice Services. The Richmond Times-Dispatch typically doesn’t name survivors of sexual assault unless, like Courtright, they identify themselves publicly.

“I want you to imagine being brave enough to come forward and report this and they aren’t able to collect the evidence ... you need to support this,” she said.

Advocates say the difficulty victims sometimes encounter in having evidence properly collected helps explain why less than half of all sexual assaults are reported. The problem, they say, is a national one.

A report last year by the Joint Commission on Health Care found that of the nearly 100,000 registered nurses in Virginia, fewer than 200 are credentialed forensic nurses.

Citing the report, Camille Cooper, with the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, told the Senate Justice Committee that of the 122 hospitals in the state, just 16 provide the sexual assault forensic examinations that are necessary to collect crucial evidence.

A bill introduced by state Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax, would require all hospitals to provide treatment or transfer services under a plan to be approved by the Virginia Department of Health.

Her bill would also set requirements for those providing services to pediatric sexual assault survivors; require the Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund to pay the costs of services to survivors; and create a Task Force on Services for Survivors of Sexual Assault to help in the development of services.

Delaney’s office said that in response to the Joint Commission on Health Care’s study last year, Gov. Ralph Northam’s budget proposal allocates $6 million to cover anticipated costs for services to sexual assault survivors from the victim compensation fund.

Advocates say the shortage of forensic nurse examiners is not for lack of interest from nurses — it’s a shortage of available training and clinical programs that can take a year or more for a nurse to gain credentials.

And once trained, it is a challenge to keep forensic nurses because the work is difficult and emotionally taxing.

Deeds’ bill, and an identical one carried by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, that is making its way through the House of Delegates, would establish the Virginia Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Coordination Program and would require a new state position.

The coordinator would create a statewide sexual assault forensic nurse examiner training program in partnership with the attorney general’s office, the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, the Virginia Victim Compensation Fund, the International Association of Forensic Nurses, and the secretary of health and human services.

Among other responsibilities, the coordinator would develop and improve examiner programs, help develop hospital procedures and guidelines for treating sexual assault survivors, and provide technical assistance for existing and developing sexual assault forensic examiner programs, including local sexual assault forensic examiner training programs.

Also under the bill, a statewide list would be created to identify available sexual assault forensic examiners, sexual assault nurse examiners, sexual assault forensic nurse examiners, and pediatric sexual assault nurse examiners.

The list — to be distributed to emergency medical services, police and other agencies — would include the location of each examiner, their duty hours and the location of available local sexual assault forensic examiner training programs.

Deeds’ and Mullin’s bills, which would require an additional $150,000 in funding, have been sent to the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees.