From left to right: Jim Bennett, Brad Bigelow and Tom McBride

Q & A with NJJA Founder, Brad Bigelow

By Sarah Frankel | NJJA Communications Coordinator 

When Brad Bigelow founded the Nebraska Juvenile Justice Association more than 40 years ago, he never imagined it would become what it is today. I had the opportunity to sit down with him and ask him about the growth of NJJA, his hopes for the organization in the coming years, and the future of juvenile justice in Nebraska.

Q: How did you first become involved with juvenile justice in Nebraska?

Bigelow: I did my undergraduate at Wayne and studied English and Journalism and then went to graduate school at the University of Nebraska in Clinical and Educational Psychology. My supervisor [in grad school] got a call from his cousin, who was the first ‘psychologist’ for the state of Nebraska, and he asked me if I wanted to start helping with testing. It was under the old Board of Control, who supervised all of the 24hr state facilities. I would go around and do testing in all of those facilities. I then became the first psychologist for the correctional system. In 1967, the YRTC was having a lot of difficulties and the warden of the [state] penitentiary asked me to come out here and try to turn things around. I was with the YRTC for 30 some years. During that time, we entered into an agreement with the courts to provide evaluations, not commitments, but court ordered evaluations and make recommendations about what to do.

Q: How was NJJA founded?

Bigelow: Originally, and I’m not sure of the year, Chadron State College had a summer juvenile justice conference. Two things happened from this; a treasury was built up and second, we found that people from the eastern part of the state didn’t want to travel 400 plus miles to attend the conference. Out of that came a nucleus, and I don’t remember all the names, but we decided to take over the money, take over the NJJA label and that’s when we started the association.

Q: What do you see as the biggest accomplishment of the NJJA?

Bigelow: The networking, for one thing. That’s the joy of these conferences. The networking, where you can see a face when you meet somebody, so when you call them on the phone, that person knows who you are.

Q: What would you like to see change in the juvenile justice community?

Bigelow: We are all working towards the same goal and we need to work together.

Q: There has been a big movement recently, nationwide, to end solitary confinement for youth. What are your thoughts on that?

Bigelow: I’m in agreement with that. Isolation is not conducive to mental health.

Q: What could Nebraska be doing better for youth who age out of the system?

Bigelow: There aren’t services available to kids 19-21 [who didn’t age out of foster care]. There used to be, for kids who were going on to college, they could [still receive services] under the auspices of HHS. But that was primarily for abuse and neglect cases, not your juvenile delinquency population; they weren’t under that umbrella.

Q: What would you like to see be made a priority in Nebraska to help kids and youth in the system?

Bigelow: Foster families. There is a shortage of them and they are hard to find. I’d like to see a network of foster families created across the state. There are a lot of good, healthy families that we need to subsidize; there are a lot of wonderful families who just can’t afford to get into the business. You can’t underscore the value of a positive role model in somebody’s life.

Q: When you first started this organization 40 years ago, did you think that this is where we would be?

Bigelow: In numbers and attendance [at the conference], I didn’t think this is where we would be. That speaks to your board and the people who put on this conference and [making it] something people want to be at. People are a lot more committed [now] to coming to these conferences and wanting to learn how to do [their job] better.