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Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Going to Court? Help’s Available

By Christine Cote

COURT HOUSE — She wears two hats, is a staff of one and hopes by the early part of the new year to be a familiar face at the county courthouse.
Who is she? Meet Kathleen Obringer — ombudsman and volunteer coordinator for the Superior Court of New Jersey here and in Atlantic County.
What does she do? She’s the customer service division of the court system and will be there to help those impacted by it to navigate through it more smoothly.
She will try to answer: “How do we educate the public? How do we introduce the public to the courts? How do we demystify the courts?”
Obringer is the first to fill this role that was created effective Aug. 1. The Atlantic-Cape May vicinage was one of the last in the state to have such a court official.
In an interview with the Herald last week, she said Essex County has had an ombudsman the longest, for about eight years. Camden and Mercer counties also created the position be-fore the Administrative Office of the Courts in Trenton mandated that each vicinage have one.
Since she will cover all three courthouses in the vicinage — here, the on Bacharach Boulevard in Atlantic City and in Mays Landing — Obringer will only be here part time.
She is working on setting up an office where she will be accessible to the public. One possibility is the former bar association office on the second floor, but she said nothing has been decided yet. She said she would try to schedule her time here on the busiest court day to be accessible to as many people as possible.
Her job will include simply giving people directions to court rooms if asked, telling them what’s going to happen when they get there, or helping them to understand the next step in the process if they’ve just come out of court.
Although sheriff officers are there to direct people, said Obringer, some people call ahead and want to know where to go once they are in the building.
What she won’t be doing is giving legal advice, preparing pleadings for filing, or under-mining attorney client relationships, by second guessing a lawyer’s advice to a client.
She said she will give information to help with filing papers and sometimes will have samples to show. She will also direct those who “need to do research” to the law library.
She said that she anticipates most of her questions will come from pro se litigants, those who are unrepresented by counsel.
She will take all requests seriously and in confidence. She will investigate any claim that someone “is not happy about treatment they received from a judge,” but quickly adds that does not include the judge’s decision.
She said she would investigate any allegations presented to her about any aspect of the courthouse and its functions. She is required to maintain files on matters that are brought to her attention for investigation.
Since she started in Atlantic County, she has helped people with disabilities, including one person who was blind and needed help with filing out papers.
She will also be looking at the courthouse from a “user’s perspective” to ensure directions are clear.
Since she is the first one to have this job, she said she is using the Essex County program as her model.
“I’m stealing a lot of their ideas and brochures,” she said.
There is also a statewide committee of those in her job title and they meet once a month.
In Obringer’s second job as volunteer coordinator, she is responsible for recruitment, maintenance of records and obtaining background checks on volunteers who sit on Child Placement Review Boards (CPR) and Juvenile Conference Committees (JCC).
The first assists the court by monitoring DYFS cases to ensure children placed outside the home are receiving required care, she said.
The JCC reviews pending juvenile cases, said Obringer, to try to resolve them without a court proceeding.
Both programs are in need of volunteers, she said, particularly males for the juvenile committees. There is also a need for those who speak Spanish.
She said volunteers must provide the same information as those who apply for a job with the court, receive a criminal background check and are fingerprinted, which is a recent re-quirement.
Participation on a CPR board requires about 10 hours a month, said Obringer, while JCC members volunteer for about three to five hours a month.
Both programs are under staffed in the county, she said and would welcome teachers and even high school students to participate, especially as JCC members.
Obringer answers to Trial Court Administrator Charles McCaffery and Assignment Judge Valerie Armstrong.
Before taking this position, she was the vicinage’s training coordinator for eight years. In that role she was responsible for training managers, assistant managers, team leaders, proba-tion officers and administrate specialists for the court. She also conducted orientations for law clerks and provided some training for judges.
There are about 450 state employes in the vicinage, which does not include sheriff’s offi-cers who are employed by the county, according to Obringer.
Prior to working for the courts, Obringer said she “came from the private sector.” She was with Atlantic City Electric for 21 years, in “various positions,” but said she “always worked in customer service.”
A native of Atlantic County, Obringer lives there with her husband and they have two daughters, a 24-four-year-old in graduate school and a 13-year-old in seventh grade.
Contact Cote at: ccote@cmcherald.com

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