News Release: Spotlight Finds Four Nebraskans for Helping State’s Youth

(Award winners (L to R) Dr. Kenneth Zoucha, Erin Curran, Raevin Bigelow, and NJJA President Mike Renn)

June 5, 2015

KEARNEY – “I was just doing my job,” is a statement that means more for some than others. At this year’s Nebraska Juvenile Justice Association Conference, four people were recognized for doing so much more than the job required. All award recipients worked to help youth climb out of difficult situations, recover from deep physical and emotional traumas, and piece their lives back together.

The NJJA Service Awards recognize youth and juvenile justice professionals whose outstanding efforts have improved or strengthened the juvenile justice community in Nebraska. Earlier this month, NJJA and the Nebraska Coalition for Juvenile Justice presented the following awards:


Spirit of Youth Award: Raevin Bigalow

Ms. Bigelow, a former system-involved youth, was recognized for her resilience in the face of many life challenges.  In her acceptance speech, she thanked the professionals in the room for their dedication to young people like her. Ms. Bigelow is the proud mother of a two-year old daughter and plans to become a motivational speaker and youth pastor.

Commitment to Excellence in Leadership Award: Dr. Kenneth Zoucha

Dr. Zoucha, Medical Director at Hastings Juvenile Chemical Dependency Program, was recognized for his outstanding leadership in serving youth and families in contact with the juvenile justice system. According to NJJA President Mike Renn, “Dr Zoucha has quietly, and without much fanfare, provided important guidance and programming for youth and families who struggling with addiction.”

Evenly E. Labode Service to Youth Award: Erin Curran

Ms. Curran, an Intensive Family Preservation Therapist for KVC in Omaha, received the award for her commitment, initiative and advocacy on behalf of youth and families in Nebraska. Erin has worked as a therapist and foster care specialist for five years and is known for the individualized attention she gives each of her families – as well as acting as a roll model to her peers.

Scholarship Award: Hailey Kaderabek

Ms. Kaderabek of Kayki, NE, is a senior at Peru State College with a major in Criminal Justice and Psychology. She was recognized as an excellent scholar working towards a career in juvenile justice. She is a peer mentor, tutor, and member of the Alpha Epsilon criminal justice club and expects to graduate this May.





2015 NJJA Award Nominations

Every year, we at the NJJA like to recognize youth and juvenile justice professionals who make exceptional efforts towards improving and strengthening the juvenile justice community in Nebraska. Together, NJJA and the Nebraska Coalition for Juvenile Justice will present four awards at our 40th anniversary conference in Kearney, May 6-8. Read more

Executive Dysfunction Predicts Delinquency But Not Sexual Aggression

January 22, 2015

Recent research from the Northeast Educational Assessment and Research Institute finds links between executive dysfunction, delinquency and sexual aggression. Follow this link to read the full article published in this month’s NEARI Newsletter.

According to the agency’s website, “[This] newsletter article focuses on whether there is a link between the executive functioning of the brain (the brain’s conductor) and sexual aggression in adolescents. The research showed a strong relationship between executive dysfunction and non-sexual crimes but no solid relationship between executive functioning and sexual crimes. However, since a high percentage of those who abuse sexually re-offend non-sexually and executive functioning impacts other aspects of the lives of these youth, the authors urge practitioners to include executive functioning as significant focus of treatment planning.”

5 Things to Consider Regarding Reentry and Employment








By Sam Aspnes

I tell most people my first job was working the concession stand of a movie theater. In reality, my first job was being a part of my parents’ labor force. Despite legislation outlawing forced child labor, my parents flaunted the law and made me mow the lawn, clean the house, and (gasp) dig rocks out of the yard. Of course I realize now that work has helped me in many ways – although I would never admit that to my parents.

Employment breeds a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. It connects a person to their community. And honest work precludes adults and youth from having to make money in more “creative” ways.

For youth transitioning out of YRTCs or other out-of-home placements, finding and keeping a job is important for a successful transition back into the community. I talked with Mark Mason of Nebraska VR (Vocational Rehabilitation) and Jim Bennett, Program Specialist for Reentry at the Office of Probation Administration, about things to think about when helping youth get back to work. Here are the top 5:

1. Job placement and training services

For youth involved with the system, finding a job that fits is often a great obstacle. Placement services help youth not only find a job, but keep a job. Placement staff identify client job goals by looking closely at the client’s strengths, interests, and aptitudes. And if they require more training, program staff can set them up with technical or service training programs or post-secondary education options.

A few examples of Nebraska’s resources offering assistance with train-to-work and job placement services are Nebraska VR, the HUB’s Project Hire, Workforce Development – Workforce Investment Act (WIA), and YouthBuild USA. These providers teach job seekers how to look for a job – often through non-traditional methods. They also help with job application preparation and have partnerships with employers looking for qualified, trained workers.

Also, keeping a job is often harder than finding a job to begin with. Nebraska VR Program Director for Transition Services Mark Mason says following up with youth after they’ve found a job is crucial. A quick follow-up can smooth out disconnects between employers and employees and resolve interpersonal conflicts.

2. Informal supports and caring adults

Though often overlooked, one of the most important things to consider for any youth on reentry is a strong system of informal supports and caring adults in the lives of these young people. It is this support system of neighbors, friends, relatives, co-workers, teachers, and mentors that will support and sustain a young person when the other services and professional adults are either unavailable or no longer being used.

Services do not cure problems; communities and families do. Employment and job-finding services are a great way for youth to obtain employment, but if a young person can identify a trusted adult, that relationship will do more to help the youth retain that employment and achieve those other developmental outcomes desired for all youth in Nebraska.

3. Developing soft skills

Oftentimes, youth in reentry lack the “soft skills” necessary to fit in with a company culture and to work well with others. Soft skills – also known as “workforce readiness” skills – include communication, attitude, networking, teamwork, critical thinking, and personal habits. Visit the ODEP website to learn more.

Soft skills go a long way towards finding and retaining employment. Many of us learn these skills early on, and they’re often taken for granted. The organizations mentioned above all help with soft skills, but so should schools and adults. Improving soft skills should be addressed in every part of the reentry process.

4. Tech literacy and help for the emotionally, mentally, and physically disabled

Technology is advancing rapidly, and being capable and literate with that technology is often necessary to succeed in the modern workplace. Basic computer skills like using a keyboard, mouse and email, and having reliable access to the Internet all play a role – yet many who grew up in low-income families have none of these skills or resources.

Here is a free introductory online course to computer literacy provided by Microsoft.

Tech literacy is also critical for youth with emotional, mental, and physical disabilities. According to research from the National Disability Rights Network, an estimated 70 percent of justice-involved youth have disabilities, including psychiatric, mental health, sensory, and intellectual disabilities. Train-to-work programs offer assistance and solutions through adaptive technology.

5. Don’t forget education

While we want youth to be employed and learn those employment skills, obtaining an educational diploma will increase long-term employability and earning potential and will decrease the likelihood of recidivism and incarceration. So coordination around employment and education is crucial. One doesn’t take precedence over the other.

The connection between schools and employment is extensive. Schools themselves offer opportunities and supports for career readiness, and a youth’s school counselor can be an amazing resource. Many schools offer school credits for employment and will work with that youth’s school schedule to fit that employment.

Many of the job readiness programs that young people engage in have a school component built into them and many are targeted towards youth with an IEP or a 504 plan.

Balancing school and work is a struggle for most everyone engaged in both. When you add probation officers, case workers, treatment providers, and other external expectations of young people, it is no wonder we see those struggles with one or the other.


Sam Aspnes is an NJJA board member and graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications.


Burns Proves Spirit of Youth

Pictured above, from left to right: Award Nominator, Judge Vernon Daniels; Award Recipient, Thomas Burns; and NCJJ Chair, Cassy Rockwell.

Lincoln, NE — The Nebraska Coalition of Juvenile Justice honored Thomas Burns with the 2014 Spirit of Youth Award. Burns was recognized for using his experiences in the Juvenile Justice system to give back to youth involved in the system and to strive towards personal goals.

Burns became involved in the Juvenile Justice system as a teen due to involvement with drugs. He recalls his time in intensive treatment programs, drug court, and probation without bitterness. Judge Vernon Daniels, who nominated Thomas for the award, said in his nomination letter, “[Thomas] regularly tells how grateful he is to his treatment team, probation officer, attorney, and most especially his judge, the Honorable Lawrence Gendler. Thomas reports that they saved him… From their example, he has learned to never give up on others. He often tells me to give that [additional] chance.”

In March, Burns celebrated his fourth year of sobriety. He gives back at his local Chip Night events by celebrating sobriety birthdays and providing mentorship to his peers.

Since completing probation, Thomas has achieved a great deal. He overcame academic setbacks to graduate high school, received an academic transfer degree from Metropolitan Community College (MCC), and enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He hopes to pursue a degree in political science, attend law school, and become President of the United States.

While at MCC, Burns won a seat on the Student Advisory Council. His commitment to running a true campaign inspired others to run, resulting in the largest student voting turnout in MCC’s history. He has used these skills to serve on a state candidate’s campaign and wishes to continue exploring politics with an internship in Washington, D.C.

Burns was originally honored at the Nebraska Juvenile Justice Association’s Annual Conference on May 8, but was unable to attend. The NCJJ celebrated him at their public coalition meeting in Lincoln on June 6, 2014.  Upon receiving the award and a $500 scholarship, Burns stated, “Thank you. I’m so grateful and honored to even be considered.”