A passion for juvenile justice kept County Court Judge Gerald Rouse in the same job for more than forty years. Upon his retirement he reflects on four decades of changes in the legal system that deal with children in trouble with the law and families in crisis.
The last day of 2012 in Seward County Court could not have been more normal for Judge Gerald Rouse. It was sentencing day for a routine drunk driving case and the defendant, Randall Stark, stood before the bench waiting for his sentence. Drinking and driving had been an issue for Stark previously; it was his second offense, so the judge had to choose between probation or more time in jail for Stark.
Rouse’s voice, as he read off the sentence, had the quick, toneless quality of someone who had read from the same script a thousand times before. In fact, he had.
From this bench and in court rooms in the ten other counties that make up Nebraska’s 5th Judicial District, Rouse had heard countless drunk driving cases, divorces, accusations of petty crimes and driving offenses and all the rest of the most basic work done in the state’s courts.
This was anything but a routine day because on this day Gerald Rouse ended one of the longest runs as a county court judge in the recent memory of Nebraska’s court system. He had stayed in the same job for 41 years.
In that time Rouse became especially well known for his work in the juvenile justice system, advocating for better methods of dealing with young people in trouble with the law, those with psychological problems, and soliciting the help of entire families to address the causes of a child’s behavior.
Rouse ran for and won the office of county court judge in 1971. Two years later the state switched to a non-competitive ‘merit system’ in which voters decide whether a sitting judge should retain his post. He was returned to office every year after.
The 5th Judicial District over which Rouse presides includes Boone, Butler, Colfax, Hamilton, Merrick, Nance, Platte, Polk, Saunders, Seward, and York Counties. Previously he’d served a smaller number of counties in the 21st District before district boundaries changed, consolidating county courts.
There had been opportunities for Rouse to take what would have been considered a promotion in the state’s court system. He stayed with the county court system rather than moving to the higher profile district court or the State Court of Appeals.
In all but the largest counties in Nebraska, county judges also oversee juvenile cases.
“The juvenile court is involved in law violations for juveniles under the age of 18,” Rouse explained. “They do cases for children that are neglected or dependent. They also have jurisdiction over juveniles that act out and are uncontrollable.”
That aspect of the job led Rouse to stick with county court.
“To me it was one of the most important courts,” Rouse said. “They have an effect on children’s lives as well as parents' lives. Juvenile court became very important and that is why I got so (involved in) juvenile organizations."
Considering what has changed over his four decades of service on the bench, Rouse says “not a lot” when it comes to the types of trouble kids find themselves in. Local police will bring them in for drug and alcohol violations, petty crimes, vandalism and the types of things that occur when a child is growing up too fast.
On the other hand, the court system’s understanding of the behavior of children in trouble has advanced considerably since the 1970’s. Among the state’s judges Rouse was an early advocate for considering behavioral disorders that might explain why a child gets in trouble with the law.
“When we first started there wasn’t much knowledge of children with various mental health issues,” Rouse said. “Attention Deficit Disorder, ADHD, was one of the big things that I started looking at back in the eighties and became a little more knowledgeable in.”
Rouse said it was important to understand how a child with such a condition who went untreated might be seen back in his courtroom again and again since “someone with ADHD acts first and thinks later.”
There have been improvements in the access to treatment and supervision of juvenile offenders through the years, according to Rouse. There have been a handful of facilities focused on at-risk teenagers, providing an alternative beyond locking them up. In the 1970’s the only option was juvenile facilities run by the state’s prison system.
The change could also be seen in the service providers as well. Rouse witnessed a shift in the approach taken by organizations helping juveniles. He points to the change in policy at Nebraska’s Boys Town initiated by its former leader, the Reverend Val Peters.
“Boys Town used to just basically accept children who were orphans and such,” Rouse said. “They really didn’t want any law violators or anything like that. (Val Peters) made that change and it really worked out well because Boys Town has become, in my opinion, the number one institution for taking care of juveniles.”
There were times when Rouse was surprised by the impact he had on some of the children who appeared in his court after breaking the law. He shared the story of one girl who landed in his court repeatedly.
“I get this call from her later on in life and she wanted me to perform a wedding for her and her future husband,” Rouse recalled.
He said he reminded her as a juvenile judge “I sent you to Boys Town and so I always thought you didn’t like me. She said, ‘Well judge, you were the one person in my life I could always count on being there for me.’”
Rouse believes if the problems and concerns of the juveniles remained a constant through the years, the behavior of some parents has become increasingly disturbing and more often violent.
"There are some people who are really dangerous parents,” Rouse said.
Some of the most difficult cases he has dealt with ”end up terminating the parental rights of the parents so (the children) can be someplace that is really going to care for them.”
One significant innovation Rouse advocated ended up being implemented in courts all across Nebraska and the United States. It came from a most unlikely source: the Maori tribe, native people in the South Pacific.
In the 1980’s, while at a professional conference in New Zealand, Rouse learned about the Maori’s ancient and apparently very successful response to juvenile delinquency.
“When a child gets in trouble there they have what they call a family group conference,” Rouse explained. “They get the family together to let the child know (what is wrong) and figure out what to do with the child.”
The Maori conferences don’t end with lecturing the child, Rouse said, “because sometimes the extended family gets together and they would find out what the parents were doing to the child. They get together to straighten you out, so to speak, and provide you with services” intended to help the child behave better to the benefit of the entire tribe.
When he got back to the States he contacted some other juvenile judges he knew around the country and suggested they try what he came to call “family group conferencing.” They did. With adjustments for culture and law, many courts began implementing the process with the same intent as the Maori people: talking to entire families about the issues behind a child’s problem. Many courts in Nebraska use it today.
In addition, Rouse established the Big Brother/Big Sister program in Columbus, Neb.
His efforts on behalf of the juvenile justice system earned him awards from the Nebraska State Bar Foundation, The Nebraska Juvenile Justice Association, and the State Foster Care Review Board.
On his last day on the job, Rouse came to work and sat behind his bench at the Seward County Court making no mention of the previous forty years of service. There was only one case on the docket. The second offense drunk driver was waiting for his sentence.
The judge left the bench offering no special kindness on his last day. The defendant’s lawyer asked his client be released from jail a little early since there was family visiting for the holidays.
Rouse wouldn’t have it. “That’s denied because I don’t want him being out tonight on New Year’s Eve.”
On the recording made of the day’s proceedings, one of the last things you hear from the judge is a long sigh as he cleared the day’s paper work from the bench and headed back to his office, ending the day like he’d done a thousand times before.