Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican and State Court Administrator Corey Steel assembled a team of court and juvenile-justice professionals to travel to Fremont to observe Dodge County’s newly remodeled juvenile courtroom in use.
“County Judge Ken Vampola initiated a new approach to do things in a better way for youth who have run-ins with the law. His creative use of traditional courtroom space is significant, allowing the judge, being seated across the table from the youth and parent, direct eye-to-eye contact,” remarked Heavican. “Dodge County’s juvenile justice teamwork is impressive: County attorney Oliver Glass and his Juvenile Deputy Sara VanBrandwijk, District 6 Chief Probation Officer Bob Denton and Deputy Steve Ortmeier, and Nebraska Mediation Center’s Jane Martin-Hoffman all are making a positive difference for young people.”
Heavican and his team visited the courtroom on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 to observe three juvenile court hearings and speak with the legal community.
The Dodge County juvenile courtroom has been redesigned to handle a 14-foot conference table where all individuals can sit together to discuss issues that have brought a child to court. There is a flat-screen television for videos and, according to Vampola, an atmosphere of teamwork. The courtroom is designed to be less intimidating and more welcoming for families. All participants are able to join in face-to-face discussions where a child’s voice is on the same level as that of an adult. The goal, according to Vampola, is not to intimidate juveniles, but to motivate them so that they have buy-in regarding their future and their investment in themselves.
In a March 29, 2014, article in the Fremont Tribune, Vampola remarked, “It’s still a functioning courtroom, the bench and the witness stand are all in place, and if I have a juvenile adjudication or termination of parental rights or something that requires testimony, then I’ll sit at the bench so I can observe the witnesses. Otherwise I sit at the conference table with the parties.”
"The spirit of teamwork that brought this project together is to be commended. Judge Vampola has provided great leadership, he works with dedicated professionals, and we are very appreciative of their efforts," Heavican said.
Heavican and the team of visitors discussed the impact of the courtroom design with members of the Fremont legal community. They noted that the Dodge County courtroom redesign is an excellent model for other interested communities to try.
During discussions with the Fremont group, Through the Eyes of the Child Initiative Staff Attorney Kelli Hauptman observed that youth and families have more satisfaction in the court system and better outcomes when they feel that their voices are being heard. Fremont’s environment allows for inclusive decision-making and problem solving.
Debora Denny Brownyard, Dispute Resolution & Special Court Programs Director for the Nebraska State Court Administrator’s Office noted, “It is wonderful to see youth and parents seated at the same table with Judge Vampola, the county attorney and probation officer. This direct face-to-face communication provides encouragement and admonition for the young person to make positive changes.”
At the close of one of the juvenile cases in which a 15-year old boy satisfactorily completed probation with Officer Branden Brown, Judge Vampola said to the boy and his mother, “this is a good time for a hug.” Mother and son got up from the table, turned to each other in a profound embrace.
NOTE: Juvenile court records are sealed once the youth satisfactorily completes probation. Because juvenile court is focused on rehabilitation, public records of a youthful poor decision-making and bad behavior can be legally sealed from the general public. This process provides the promise of a clean record for future college, military service, and employment.
To read the original Associated Press article on the Fremont courtroom: http://fremonttribune.com/news/local/courtroom-is-sign-of-shifting-approach-to-juvenile-justice/article_fb3bae9d-d72f-5177-af3b-7aeb281cc347.html