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Overhaul of Nebraska juvenile youth homes wins initial OK

Nebraska Unicameral
Posted at 4:34 PM, Mar 10, 2020

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers on Tuesday took a step toward increasing transparency and accountability in state-run juveniles homes following an outbreak of violence, vandalism and escapes.

Lawmakers gave initial approval to measures that would require state officials to create a long-term operations plan for how to safely run the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Geneva, Kearney and Lincoln.

The package would also create an oversight committee to examine problems at the facilities, and would require state officials to report major incidents such as assaults and escapes to a public watchdog.

“It’s a policy issue that this Legislature needs to tackle,” said Sen. Sara Howard, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Lawmakers advanced the measures through the first of three required votes in response to a high-profile increase in violence and escapes at the facilities. The package would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to keep boys and girls at different facilities, except during emergencies.

Currently, Kearney is the main campus for processing boys and girls, while the campus in Geneva treats lower-risk girls in a less restrictive environment. A third campus in Lincoln serves higher-risk boys and girls who don’t respond to treatment at Kearney.

The Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers often serve as a home of last resort for juveniles ages 14 to 18 who have broken the law and have been rejected by private facilities because of behavioral problems. Many of the juveniles come from backgrounds of abuse and trauma and have serious mental health problems.

“We are dealing with the most difficult and high-risk behavior” at the facilities, said Sen. John Arch, of Omaha.

Tensions at a girls’ facility rose to a boil in August after girls broke sprinkler heads in a sleeping area. Other girls complained that their water-damaged rooms smelled of mold and mildew, leading to a confrontation with staff members. Lawmakers who investigated found fire hazards, holes in walls and water damage in campus buildings. They also were told that many of the girls weren’t undergoing treatment to deal with their anger or trauma.

Howard said 39 boys escaped from their facility in 2019, up from four a year earlier. She said there have been eight so far this year.

Sen. John Lowe, whose district includes the Kearney facility, said he generally supported the changes but warned that lawmakers shouldn’t try to micromanage the facilities.

“I don’t want to do anything that would inhibit the staff from doing what needs to be done to ensure these (young) men and women become better citizens,” he said.