The day before his retirement, Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Doug Johnson got to witness something beautiful, something happy and something deeply affirming about his 26 years on the bench. He got to preside over an adoption.
“The little ones are so lucky to have consistent love and care,” the 65-year-old told Anthony and Jeanna Thomas, who had come to Courtroom 1 to make official what had been a de facto arrangement.
The couple had been caring for great-niece Realynn, 8½, and her little brother Maxxden, 4, almost all of the children’s young lives. The children’s mother died two years ago, and it was time to step into the formal parent roles.
Maxxden was adopted in May. Realynn’s adoption would make this arrangement permanent. It would turn a great-aunt and great-uncle into Mom and Dad. And it would mean an end to court hearings, something the judge jokingly noted: “You don’t have to look at my bald head anymore.”
Then getting right to it, he asked the room for a big round of applause.
With that, the audience of attorneys, special advocates and a caseworker erupted with joy. Johnson came around the bench and presented gifts to the children — a stuffed unicorn that Realynn immediately seized and hugged and another stuffed animal for her brother. He posed for pictures with them and brushed off Jeanna Thomas’ gushing thanks, saying his role was a small one. They had done the real work.
Johnson’s role in an often invisible world of child welfare and family life has put him in the front row of many of life’s miseries. Abused and neglected children. Parents who can’t seem to get it together. Family failure. System failure.
He, like the attorneys, social workers and others committed to children in the court system, have tried to intervene and make a difference. And there are success stories to show that whatever brings a child to the Douglas County Courthouse’s sixth-floor juvenile court doesn’t have to become a life sentence.
Still, the grind of holding that front-row seat has required a soft heart and steel spine, a deep commitment to mercy and justice and a detachment from the pain of people’s suffering in order to stay clearheaded and focused. For years, Judge Johnson’s helper in this regard had four legs. Finnegan, a poodle mix from the Nebraska Humane Society, was Johnson’s right-hand mutt.
Finnegan accompanied the judge to court. His fluffy presence calmed people on both sides of the bench. He was a good boy.
Finnegan died suddenly last month of a tumor in his heart while Johnson was out of town, attending the annual conference of a group he’s belonged to for years: the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. His death shattered the judge, who had planned to retire anyway.
“Broke my heart,” he said.
But Johnson has had enough experience with life’s zigzags to know that the bad is often followed by the good.
Take his own journey to the courthouse’s sixth floor. Johnson, an Omaha native and Rummel High (1972) and University of Nebraska at Omaha (1976) graduate, started off in the business world after college.
Zig. He hated it. Found the work in a computer firm boring and soul-crushing. Wondered existentially if this was all life held for him. Sobbed in the back of St. John’s Catholic Church on Creighton University’s campus after one Mass and wound up joining the Jesuit order of Catholic priests. Zag.
The order has a 12-year formation period, and Johnson stayed for six.
Those years put him on an American Indian reservation, in prison ministry, in a high school teaching, in a hospital, working with people with disabilities and helping hospice patients. He played and sang in guitar Masses. He formed tight friendships.
Zig. It wasn’t for him. Johnson, at age 30, went to law school. Broke, he lived in a mortuary that needed someone to answer the phones at night and offered free lodging.
Zag. He graduated, got married and first went into solo practice. Zig. That didn’t work, so he joined the firm of the late Michael McGill, who went on to become a district court judge and was an important mentor. Zag.
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Johnson then went to work for the Douglas County Attorney’s Office, prosecuting child abuse cases. In 1993, Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson appointed him to the juvenile court.
Johnson said the juvenile court then was a mess. Two judges and a third, substitute judge. The pace, he said, was “frantic. Like a train station.” Practices could be sloppy, like attorneys getting judges to sign off on motions without alerting all parties.
Over time, the court became more professional, and Johnson, through his long work with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, became a reformer. He started various efforts aimed at reducing the amount of time children lingered in foster care. One was instrumental in bringing the Court Appointed Special Advocate program here. It trains volunteers to push for the best interests of children.
Another was a family drug court, which aimed to lessen the time children spend in foster care by getting addicted parents clean and on their feet and reunited with their young children. He had a special focus on birth to age 5 because of the lifelong effects that trauma — including the trauma of being moved from caregiver to caregiver — can have.
His efforts and demeanor have earned him respect from those who appear in his court.
Attorney Tom Incontro, who represents children in juvenile court, said he has always appreciated the judge’s willingness to bring innovation and change to juvenile law. He said the judge’s use of evidence-based best practices will have “a lasting impact” on Nebraska juvenile courts. But more than that, Incontro said the judge’s “dignified manner” will be his legacy.
“He was more than a judge,” Incontro said. “He was a teacher to case professionals, a protector to children and a supportive guide for parents. The goal of juvenile court is to fix broken families. Judge Johnson spent every day in support of that endeavor.”
This spring, Johnson decided that he was ready to hang up his black robe. Both daughters are grown, and the younger one, Kate, is playing the lead character, Susanna, in “The Marriage of Figaro,” an opera at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where she attends. His older daughter is Anne.
Johnson wants to travel with wife Mary, a therapist. He wants to dig into music.
He wants, as retirees usually do, to experience the fruits of life.
The Douglas County juvenile court system has been in the news a lot this year because of a debate about whether taxpayers should foot the bill for bigger, better digs, including a new juvenile detention center, with more services to help children.
The work that takes place there has been lost in the push-pull over who pays for what and how. Any parting words on all that, Judge?
He demurred. Too political. Too hot a potato.
But Johnson did offer this: The children who wind up in Douglas County’s juvenile court system are not someone else’s children, but all of our children. The point of the court system is to improve lives. That this isn’t just feel-good stuff. Children who do better contribute to society, which is good for everyone.
Seated before Judge Johnson on Wednesday, Maxxden and Realynn played with books and smiled broadly. They fidgeted during the quick hearing, and everyone hoped that the words being spoken somehow sunk in.
Their mother, Jeanna Thomas, said she wanted to adopt Realynn because “I love her dearly and she completes our life.” Their father, Anthony, said he couldn’t see it turning out any other way.
Before the brief ceremony ended, Jeanna Thomas said she had something else to say. Turning to Judge Johnson, she said: “You’re so special to us. Then she said the adoption date, Aug. 28, would help ease the pain of what had happened two years prior, when the children’s biological mother died.
“You know when everything aligns and God puts a stamp (on it)?”
The judge did know.
He reflected on that moment in the church pew, when he was searching for a meaningful path. His own life’s zigzag had put him where he had been meant to be. His last day was Thursday.
“I think,” he said in an interview, “that my prayers got answered.”