Family says little girl with autism turned away by mall Santa because of service dog

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Abcde and her service dog Pup-Cake.
creativeContent-Julie Miller/The Santos Family

A Southern California shopping mall has apologized to the family of a young girl with autism after the family said she was turned away from visiting the shopping center's Santa Claus because the Santa was allegedly afraid of the girl's service animal.

Abcde Santos (pronounced Ab-Suh-Dee), had patiently waited in line to see the Santa at The Shops at Mission Viejo with her service dog Pup-Cake. Rather than waiting to tell Santa what she wanted for Christmas, the little girl was hoping to ask the jolly man what he was wishing for this year. But before Abcde could make it up to Santa, she was turned away, apparently because the man playing Saint Nick was not a fan of Pup-Cake, a pit bull.

Family friend Julie Miller says Pup-Cake is a specially trained service animal that accompanies Abcde everywhere she goes and should not be judged because of its breed.

"The dog is not a breed when it is a service animal," Miller told ABC. "A service animal is a highly trained companion to an individual and the breed is secondary. The Americans with Disabilities Act gives an individual with a disability the right to have their companion and service animal with them to do the job that they're trained to do."

Abcde had already waited 30 minutes to see Santa, something that Miller says could pose a challenge for those with autism.

"The fact the Abcde was able to wait in line for 30 minutes was something that was to be highly celebrated," she said. "Any person who has a child on the spectrum would look at that and think 'Wow.'"

According to a post by Abcde's mom on Facebook, the family offered to take Pup-Cake outside so that Abcde could sit with Santa. But the family says they were then told the Santa was allergic to Pup-Cake and Abcde would still not be allowed to visit.

Julie Miller/The Santos Family

While the story of Abcde and Pup-Cake quickly enraged fans of the service dog, the Santos family says The Shops at Mission Viejo acted appropriately. After the family reached out to the company, family friend Julie Miller says they responded immediately.

"We do not condone the behavior displayed by Santa and have worked with our partners at Noerr, the company that hires our Santas, to replace this Santa with one that is more compassionate to our guests' needs," The Shops at Mission Viejo wrote on its Facebook page. "We look forward to welcoming back the Santos family and Pup-Cake for a special Santa experience."

Noerr's CEO also posted a statement to the mall's Facebook page, writing, "For 26 years, The Noerr Programs has devoted itself to sharing the heart of Santa through the creation of magical Christmas experiences for all children and their families. The entire team at The Noerr Programs sincerely apologizes for any distress caused by this situation, and truly regrets the incident. We have reached out to the girl's family, in an effort to extend a private Santa visit with complimentary photos of both the child and her service dog."

The Santa, as well as an elf, were both fired, according to a statement released by Miller on behalf of the Santos family.

Miller says the Santos family is happy with the response from both companies, but that doesn't change the fact that Abcde is still upset. Although she was invited back to visit a new Santa, the family has issued a statement saying, "Right now Abcde does not want anything to do with anything Christmas. The family is working on reigniting that hope she had; if and when it happens she will visit Santa at The Shops. She will have her 30 seconds with Santa so she can ask him what he wants for Christmas. If she wants to. Not until then."