LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska officials are moving 24 teenage girls out of a state-run facility for female juvenile offenders after learning that many were confined to buildings with fire hazards, holes in the wall and mold and water damage.
The Department of Health and Human Services announced the move Monday after some state lawmakers voiced concerns about the conditions and a lack of staff and programming at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva.
The campus in rural, central Nebraska serves as a rehabilitation center for girls ages 14-18 who have broken the law and been rejected by other private treatment facilities. All of the 24 girls who live on campus were sent there by the courts as a last resort, and many have significant behavioral and mental health problems.
The problems came to a boil two weeks ago, when one girl damaged the sprinkler system in one of the four residential cottages on campus, leaving the building uninhabitable. Four state lawmakers made an unannounced visit to the campus on Friday and described decrepit conditions in several of the four buildings on campus.
“It was far worse than I could have imagined,” said Sen. Sara Howard, of Omaha, the chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
Lawmakers who toured the campus discovered that three girls were confined to their rooms alone with nothing to occupy their time, and two of the three had no working lights in their rooms. One of the girls was lying on a wooden bedframe with no mattress. The girls reported being confined for up to five days at a time.
In one building, lawmakers said a mechanism designed to simultaneously unlock all doors during a fire was broken. To release all of the girls during a fire, staff members would have to open each door individually.
Howard said several rooms suffered water damage, and one girl said she didn’t want to sleep in her usual space because she had asthma and was worried about mold and mildew in the building. Two other girls reported feeling nauseous, she said.
At one point, Howard said girls used a broom and an electrical cord as weapons and barricaded themselves in a room with a phone. They used the phone to call their parents, a child abuse hotline, the state ombudsman’s office and local law enforcement before the situation was defused, Howard said. At least one girl found sharp metal inside a wall that was damaged and used it to cut herself.
Lawmakers also learned that the department was pulling staff members from facilities in surrounding communities to fill numerous job vacancies at the 82-bed center. And because of the staff shortages, the center offered little therapy and few activities to keep the girls occupied.
“I was very dismayed about what we saw when we went there,” said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, of Lincoln. “It was just not a healthy environment.”
The center is a part of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, but the building’s maintenance was recently put under the authority of another agency. Pansing Brooks said lawmakers are just as much to blame as the agencies for not watching the situation more closely and for cutting the state budget at a time when Nebraska is struggling to hire public employees.
“We’ve been lulled into complacency, thinking everything’s fine,” she said.
Department officials said they would temporarily move the girls to a facility for male juvenile offenders in nearby Kearney, but would not be allowed to commingle with them.
Department CEO Dannette Smith said she ordered the move out of concern for the safety and well-being of both the girls and staff members. Clearing the buildings will give the state more time to examine and refurbish them, she said.
Smith acknowledged that the department is struggling to hire people in the rural area, which in turn makes it harder to develop trusting relationships with the female offenders. But she pledged to fix the problems identified by lawmakers.
“What I’m most concerned about is making sure we have a clean, healthy and safe environment for the girls,” she said.
Julie Rogers, the state’s inspector general for child welfare, said she planned to launch an investigation into the conditions at the center as well as possible violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law designed to protect inmates from being sexually assaulted. She declined to elaborate.
Rogers said she hadn’t received any complaints about the center in the last few months, but Smith brought the issue to her attention in hopes of pinpointing issues the department needs to address.