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Senators to investigate conditions at Nebraska youth centers

Posted at 1:00 PM, Aug 25, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-25 14:00:29-04

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers plan to investigate staffing shortages in state facilities that house juvenile offenders after some workers complained about safety and employee burnout.

The issue gained new attention last week when all 24 girls were moved from the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva because of poor living conditions.

Lawmakers who visited with staff and juvenile offenders at the all-girl facility learned that many of the girls weren’t getting rehabilitative programming and frequently rebelled against employees. The girls damaged several of the buildings where they were housed, and lawmakers found fire hazards, holes in the wall and water damage in campus buildings.

Some lawmakers said inadequate staffing is the core problem because there aren’t enough workers to safely monitor and treat the girls. Without those services, they said the girls are more likely to get into trouble and destroy property as they did last week.

“It’s a huge, multi-faceted issue,” said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, of Lincoln. “It’s staffing, it’s money and it’s training for the staff. Some staff members are fearful. Some of them aren’t property trained to handle the girls.”

Sen. John Lowe said he called for the review after hearing complaints from workers at the center for boys in Kearney, a part of his legislative district. Lowe made his request for a study before last week’s incident in Geneva, but said it highlights the need for more scrutiny.

“It’s always good to look back and see what we can do better,” Lowe said.

Lawmakers plan to hold a hearing in October. The review will examine staffing levels at the juvenile offender centers in Kearney and Geneva as well as the Beatrice State Developmental Center, a state-run facility for people with developmental disabilities. It also will look at the Lincoln Regional Center, a state psychiatric hospital.

The Geneva 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 girls who live on campus were sent there by the courts as a last resort, and many suffer from significant behavioral and mental health problems.

The union that represents most employees at the Geneva and Kearney centers said the problems are driven by low pay and excessive overtime for workers, who then quit their jobs because they don’t want to deal with the hassle. Although wages vary by profession at the facilities, union officials say the pay is as low as about $10 an hour for some kitchen and custodial workers.

Employees at the centers often have to work 16 hours at a time because of inadequate staffing, said Justin Hubly, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees. Hubly said counselors and other non-security personnel are sometimes pulled into security jobs at the center because no one else is available to work.

Staffing shortages also make it difficult to provide the young offenders with services that might rehabilitate them, he said.

“If you don’t have the staff to provide the services, then there are no services, and that breeds malcontents,” Hubly said. “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.”

Hubly said he was equally concerned about staffing levels at the facility for boys in Kearney, where the girls were moved to make way for renovations at the Geneva center.

“The Legislature needs to listen. The governor needs to listen,” he said. “When they create a state budget and don’t allocate adequate funding, these are the problems that result.”

Lowe said he was concerned that many current employees aren’t staying on the job as long as their predecessors. He said many previously complained to him that they aren’t allowed to defend themselves against youths who attack and spit on them.

Lowe said he believes conditions have improved some at the Kearney facility, but “obviously, Geneva’s having some problems.”

Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services CEO Dannette Smith acknowledged the agency is struggling to hire and keep people at the Geneva facility. One major factor is the state’s low unemployment rate and the abundance of jobs elsewhere, she said. She said she didn’t yet know whether the department would request additional emergency funding for staff or building renovations.

Smith said the staffing shortages make it difficult to maintain all of the programming that would benefit the girls at the center. The turnover also complicates efforts to develop trusting relationships with the girls, she said.

“I would say it has been quite a challenge for us,” Smith said. “Quite honestly, that’s been one of my concerns. I want to ensure there is good programming there that stimulates the girls to move forward in their lives.”