Ellen Brokofsky was 25-years-old, divorced and raising two kids on her own when she took a probation job working with teenagers who got in trouble in Sarpy County.
She never imagined she’d still be part of the system 43 years later. Let alone at the top of it, where she’ll retire at the end of the year.
Brokofsky said those early days as Nebraska State Probation Administrator were tough. So tough she didn’t know if she was going to make it. But she had ambitious plans.
In a Judicial Branch Education office in the middle of Lincoln one day last week, Gene Cotter, a deputy administrator, said during Brokofsky’s 13 years as administrator, Nebraska "went from being Nebraska, to being a place that’s nationally on the map” for community corrections.
But it didn’t come easy. She had to change the culture first. This fall, Cotter said, Brokofsky quickly identified the problem that the new Husker football coach down the road, Scott Frost, was facing in those early games.
"This is a culture problem,” he remembered her telling him while watching a game.
In the news conference after, when the coach said the same thing, Cotter wasn’t surprised. Brokofsky knew what it looked like when she saw it and knew it wasn’t easy.
“It’s like changing the course of a river,” she said.
When then Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice John Hendry appointed her to oversee operations of the statewide probation system in 2005, she knew things had to change. The youngest, least experienced probation officers were working with the toughest, riskiest clients. They had to find a way to flip it to make the biggest impact, she said.
“You have to have a culture where people want to do this,” she said.
Deb Minardi, another of Brokofsky’s deputy administrators who has been in probation nearly as long as her boss, said it was a big deal because they were coming from a “trail ‘em, nail ‘em and jail ‘em” mentality.
But Brokofsky knew that didn’t really work. When she went to a training about evidence-based assessments that were cutting recidivism in Canada, she was all ears.
Now, probation officers make assessments to determine a probationer’s risk and needs and match them to a probation officer. It’s all about rehabilitation, identifying what intervention is needed to change that behavior, to keep them out of the system and the community safe.
She said she remembered as she traveled across the state to hear from probation officers about what was working and what wasn’t. One probation officer stood up and said he wasn’t a social worker. Brokofsky told him as a probation officer he had to wear lots of hats: social worker, teacher, parent, law enforcement officer.
Once you have an engaged officer who has listened and understands where that person is, she said, you start to see that there are things they can do to get better.
Brokofsky said it became: change behavior, treatment, safe community.
“We know if that intervention occurs, if that relationship occurs with the officer and they get matched to the right treatment, really good things happen,” she said. “And they’re seeing such good outcomes.”
Recidivism has gone down in the state, Brokofsky said. It’s now 16 percent for adults and 24 percent for juveniles. Really low compared to the rest of the country, she said.
And that’s important because, Minardi said, every person who completes probation and doesn’t commit another crime is one more person who isn’t in prison and one less victim in the community.
But they’re always trying to get those numbers lower.
Now, they do things like incentives and immediate sanctions to hold people accountable, Brokofsky said. Parents of kids who are struggling used to have to make them wards of the state to get them the help they need. Since 2013, they haven’t.
“First, do no harm,” she said, just like the medical profession. “We say it in our profession, too.”
Minardi said Brokofsky knew she needed to shake up the system and turn it inside out, “and that’s exactly what she did.”
But Brokofsky quickly jumped in.
“No,” she said. “That’s exactly what we did."
Brokofsky doesn’t like to take credit.
Regardless, under her watch Nebraska is getting attention for its successes. Brokofsky said the state is at the forefront when it comes to juvenile justice reform. And Minardi and Cotter both have been elected to sit on the American Probation and Parole Association board of directors.
“This is what happens without asking when you do really good work,” she said of the probation department as a whole.
Still, there’s no denying the difference Brokofsky has made personally in those 43 years.
Like the 16-year-old girl who she was a probation officer for years ago who still calls her on her sobriety anniversary every year. The woman is 47 now and went on to be a probation officer herself, then a police officer and now is a social worker in Florida.
It’s been more than a job, said Brokofsky, who is 68.
“You feel it in your soul," she said. "It is a passion. It really is.”
Brokofsky said it’s terribly hard to leave the people, but she won’t miss the stress and worry that went with the job. And she’s proud to have helped create a strong foundation that will last many years.
Next, she’s looking forward to spending lots more time with her grandkids.