The Department of Health and Human Services says moving 24 girls from the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva to the center at Kearney will allow the department to refresh programs for the youth while the Department of Administrative Services assesses the physical needs of the four-building Geneva Campus.
DHHS CEO Dannette Smith says the girls will be housed in a separate building from the boys on the 130-acre campus which started out as the Nebraska Training School in 1881 and actually housed both male and female youth for a decade before the Girls Industrial School at Geneva opened. Both campuses were part of the Nebraska Department of Corrections until 1997 when they switched to the current status with DHHS.
Sadly, the most recent move came after the Geneva treatment center reached a crisis point from both physical conditions – two buildings were deemed uninhabitable -- and allegations of a lack of programming, treatment and medical care. Four state senators made a surprise visit to the center and the Nebraska Inspector General for Child Welfare and a representative of the state Ombudsman's office are also investigating conditions and allegations of inappropriate room confinement, overmedication of youth, inadequate management of prescribed mental health drugs and accusations of violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
The four senators -- Sara Howard and Steve Lathrop of Omaha, Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln and Tom Brandt of Plymouth inspected the facility and interviewed residents. The girls showed the senators their living quarters and told them they spend most of the time sitting around with no activities or outdoor time.
As a kid growing up in the Nebraska Panhandle I remember when a couple boys I knew got sent to Kearney. Our parents referred to it as reform school. In fact, after the girls moved out of Kearney in 1892, the place was known as the Nebraska State Reform School for Juvenile Offenders. In 1994, both schools became YRTC.
The DHHS website says the Mission of the Kearney center is to “help youth live better lives through effective services, giving youth the chance to become law-abiding citizens.” The Mission of the Geneva Center is to “return youth to their community as productive and law-abiding citizens.” Those similar sounding missions sound like they should rely on programming, not “warehousing” which is a common complaint about the overcrowded, understaffed Nebraska correctional system. Sitting around with no activities sounds like prison.
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I don’t know what the move means for the future of the Geneva facility. There have been bills in recent years in the Legislature calling for a physical move to co-locate at Kearney. But none have been successful. If we can believe Smith, this current move is temporary and will allow her department to get its act together while the DAS Building Division looks at needed repairs and upgrades to the Geneva living units.
Smith says DHHS has been assessing how it serves the youth in its care, the condition of its facilities, and what changes may need to be made to further enhance safety, programming and outcomes. She adds that she wants to give youth the opportunity to thrive as they transition from the YRTCs into a successful adulthood.
That’s a laudable goal, it’s just sad that it took a crisis and an intervention by four lawmakers to make something happen.
Let’s hope that both centers can live up to their name as Rehabilitation and Treatment facilities. Decent facilities that are safe and clean and programming that teaches right from wrong and life skills is a big step in the right direction.
J.L. Schmidt has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 20 years.