Grace: Judge knows a little puppy love can help ease tensions in Juvenile Court

Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Doug Johnson is joined at the bench by his dog, Finnegan. The English setter-standard poodle mix helps break the tension for the families in court. “If somebody's crying,” Johnson said, Finnegan “will go right up and look at you and he'll even put his paws on you.”

In court one day, the mom was a no-show. The dad said he might have to go to jail. Grandma sat there and cried.

From behind the bench, two faces stared solemnly at them all.

One, wearing a black robe, spoke words of firmness and compassion and talked about a ticking foster-care clock. The other wore a black coat and remained silent, letting his big, black eyes do the talking.

Judge Doug Johnson and Finnegan the Court Dog wore the same concerned expression. But it was nearly impossible to look at the bench and not smile. Not laugh. Not want to scratch Finnegan's fluffy head or baby-talk about what a cute guy he is, such a good boy!

Which is exactly the point.

Given the human drama that parades through Juvenile Court, the seemingly insurmountable problems involving broken families, the presence of this well-trained dog offers a much-needed break in the tension.

Around Finnegan, attorneys melt into marshmallows, traumatized children relax and troubled parents see the lighter, humane side of a system that has split up their family.

Finnegan is among the many methods this judge tries to build bridges with those who land on the sixth floor of the Douglas County Courthouse.

Johnson, who's been on the bench for 19 years, started a drug court for expectant mothers and parents of toddlers. He instituted off-the-record meetings among parents, lawyers and social workers as a way to solve family problems faster and reunite parents with their children. He started holding summertime “reunification” picnics for families who survived a breakup.

His very demeanor in court is strikingly compassionate.

The 58-year-old once sought to be a Jesuit priest and was in training for seven years before leaving to marry, have children (two grown daughters) and begin a law career.

His job is his vocation, says Johnson's wife, Mary, a therapist.

“The court should follow families,” the judge says, “instead of families following the court.”

When the judge introduces himself in court, he drops his formal title.

“I'm Doug Johnson,” he says before launching into his spiel about how this is civil court, not criminal, and that the priority is the children and “permanency” — making sure the kids aren't languishing in foster care, which just adds to their trauma.

The judge believes that if parents are given the tools to succeed — treatment, therapy, job training — they can.

“We want families to thrive,” he says in court.

To do that, Johnson removes himself from the courtroom so these “facilitated pre-hearing conferences” can occur. Lawyers push tables together. Without the judge present, parents are typically more willing to fess up to their struggles with drugs and alcohol, strained relationships and other roadblocks.

When Johnson re-enters, a formal hearing begins, and he orders whatever extra help the parents need.

He's not just doing this out of kindness. The faster a family's problems are identified, the more quickly help can be arranged, and the better off the children are. The state's goal is to have a permanent home for children within a year of removal.

Enter Finnegan.

Not unlike some of the children whose cases land here, this English setter-standard poodle mix had an absent father and was a cast-off in general. Doug and Mary adopted him from the Nebraska Humane Society.

They hired a trainer but did not train Finnegan to be an official therapy dog. They just wanted the pet to come when called and stay when told.

Johnson and his wife, Mary, adopted Finnegan from the Nebraska Humane Society. The dog comes to court with Johnson every day. KENT SIEVERS/THE WORLD-HERALD

After enough training, after checking with colleagues and promising the bailiff across the hall, who is deathly afraid of dogs, that Finnegan would keep his distance, Johnson brought Finnegan to court. Finnegan arrived six months ago and has been here since, entering each morning on his red leash and leaving each night.

Unlike many courthouse chatterboxes, Finnegan is a dog of few words. He didn't bark at all on the two mornings I visited.

“Just came by to say hi to the little guy,” says one attorney in a brown suit who bent down to pet Finnegan.

“Rufffff, rufffff,” says another attorney, and Finnegan, wagging a giant, Dr. Seuss-like feather-duster tail, follows her back to the coffee maker.

“The cops will come, the deputies,” the judge says, “all of a sudden they're down on the ground just petting the dog.”

Finnegan has the same effect on troubled kids. The judge described a recent case in which a 4-year-old boy had to testify about abuse at home.

Johnson said he took off his black robe, sat with the boy on the ground and had Finnegan come over so the child could pet him. Johnson asked questions: Does your dad hit you? Why? Where? The boy petted the dog and answered in terrified whispers.

“We've had cases,” Johnson said, “where if somebody's crying, (Finnegan) will go right up and look at you and he'll even put his paws on you.”

But today is a different case, the one where the mom didn't come and the dad was fretting about his pending felony burglary case.

Johnson first asked if anyone had a problem with dogs. No one did. Then Finnegan popped his head above the bench.

In court is Michael Garman, whose two sons were removed from the home over a year ago. The children's mother is not present, and her attorney isn't sure why. The boys are not here.

Today, with Finnegan sitting in, Garman faced the judge in a dress shirt and tie, pressed slacks and shiny black shoes — not the “county orange” he first appeared in. Today, he was sober. He was succeeding in drug treatment. He said he was doing well, and all the attorneys and case managers seemed to think so, too.

Garman asked for more custodial time with the boys, ages 6 and 7.

Johnson said he was willing to work that out but has a bigger concern: the length of time the children have been in foster care. And he notes that Garman might be facing jail time in his burglary case, which would further separate him from the boys.

He then called Garman up to the bench, gave him three children's books and urged him to read as much as he could to the boys.

“Let's give Dad a big round of applause,” the judge said.

Asking Garman's permission, Johnson and Finnegan stepped off the bench and approached Garman. The judge gave the father a piece of dog biscuit and told him to make Finnegan sit before rewarding him.

Garman did. Then he tousled Finnegan's head and the room erupted in laughter.

“See?” Johnson said. “Everybody's got to know manners.”

Contact the writer: erin.grace@owh.com, 402-444-1136, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH

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