Youth Services Center

The Lancaster County Youth Services Center may be where some youth in the state's juvenile justice system would be placed under a plan unveiled Monday.

A new plan for girls and boys who need placement in state Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers will include the Lancaster County Youth Services Center.

State Department of Health and Human Services CEO Dannette Smith announced Monday that she has developed a new plan that would house girls and boys at Kearney, girls and boys with more trauma and behavioral health issues at the Lancaster County center and a small number of girls at Geneva who are getting ready to leave treatment and go back to their communities and schools. 

At least one advocate for Nebraska children and youth had concerns about the plan, especially the idea of adding another lockup for kids. Voices for Children in Nebraska said HHS' new plan is likely to increase challenges for young people who come into contact with the juvenile system.

"It is a poor investment of taxpayer resources in a model that is out of line with current best practices in the field and current knowledge of youth development," said Juliet Summers, Voices for Children policy coordinator, in a news release.

Smith began looking into a change in youth rehabilitation practices in August when the Geneva treatment center reached a crisis point because of building conditions and allegations of a lack of programming, treatment and medical care at the center for female youths.

Girls were moved from the Geneva center to Kearney while a plan was discussed for more long-term solutions. At the same time, the state began renovating one of the residential cottages at Geneva.  

The Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Geneva and Kearney are state-run, campus-style correctional and rehabilitation facilities for girls and boys who have been unable to succeed at less-restrictive facilities.

At Kearney, state officials will phase in a program for boys and girls, including an assessment of needs when they arrive to determine placement. At Kearney, services include school, recreation, behavioral health treatment and telemedicine services from Boys Town. 

Youth could be transferred to Lincoln if they have high needs for behavioral or mental health treatment or have assaultive or self-harming behavior, and are consistently aggressive with their peers or adults. 

"That doesn't mean one act of getting angry, but if we see it over time, and they're not able to be redirected ... they could be transferred to Lincoln," Smith said. 

The program in Lincoln would be more supportive and intensive for kids with trauma and behavioral health issues, she said. 

Lancaster County's Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center program has the potential to accept nine girls and 11 boys in two pods, but the numbers of youth will be phased in beginning in January, Smith said.  

In Geneva, a new reentry program would accept three to six girls who are 60 days from leaving the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, getting them ready to reengage in school and their communities. The program would include furlough and overnight visits away from the center. 

"We would be able to monitor and see how those visits go," Smith said. 

That program would be in the recently remodeled LaFlesche cottage. The number is limited at this time because of staffing challenges in Geneva, including getting enough workers who can provide the proper level of programming, supervision and support. 

Programming will include family treatment and enhancing personal life skills. The final 60 days of a youth’s treatment will be 30 days of preparation and 30 days of skills application.

"I just want to start small to see if I can make this work," Smith said. "Last night I said to the Geneva community that I might be a little gun shy. I don't want to pull the trigger with 30 girls on the campus that I don't know how I would be able to take care of them."

Starting small would allow for realigning the program as possible, she said.

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Something similar for the boys would be in the Kearney center. 

The new plan is an immediate to intermediate step in the right direction, she said. 

But Summers said her organization is concerned the plan creates an additional youth prison, in an even more confined setting, at a time when states across the country are moving away from the failed model of youth incarceration.

And it fails to use current best practices in assessment and treatment for behavioral health, instead relying on a made-up model of behavior intervention, the “phase model," which has not been tested for efficacy.

It also adds instability for kids in the juvenile system who may be moved more frequently between facilities, she said, discounting the importance of consistent, positive relationships with mentors and staff that are key to providing treatment-focused services.

“States across the country are recognizing youth incarceration as a failed model for dealing with misbehavior by young people," Summers said. "Opening another youth prison cannot solve the problems with our current youth prisons.” 

Summers called for a broader look at the system and investment in programs such as community-based services that keep kids connected to their families and communities while they work to address issues.

Smith acknowledged there is a longer community conversation that must be held on how to serve children who come to the attention of the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers and Juvenile Probation, in terms of programming and facilities. 

Others have talked about changes in the youths that show up at the YRTCs, including a small percentage of kids with violent behaviors that have caused problems for the centers and for other youths there. 

"The long and short of it (is) we're not finished. We've still got work to do," Smith said. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.