LINCOLN — A handful of female juvenile offenders could be moving back to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva this month.
Dannette Smith, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, told state lawmakers in December that the agency is on track to move as many as six girls back to the state institution, starting in mid-January.
She said the agency also expects to start sending juvenile offenders to a newly leased facility in Lincoln by mid- to late January. The new facility, which will be in the same building as the Lancaster County Detention Center, is to provide intensive treatment for youths with especially severe behavioral and mental health problems.
“Much progress has been made since I last appeared before the Health and Human Services Committee in early October,” Smith said.
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She and others updated the HHS and Judiciary committees about the agency’s plan for the state’s YRTCs. The plan involves creating a YRTC system by revamping the existing institutions at Kearney and Geneva and opening a third center in Lincoln.
The Kearney facility is to become the system’s hub and will continue housing both male and female offenders, as it has since all of the girls were moved out of the Geneva facility in August. Previously, the Kearney facility was for males only.
The Geneva facility will reopen, but for only a small number of girls who are getting ready for life back in the community. The Lincoln facility will serve youths who do not respond to programs offered at Kearney.
HHS developed the plan in the weeks after Smith ordered all the girls moved out of the Geneva center. She issued the order after concluding that severe staff shortages, inadequate programming and deteriorating buildings at the Geneva campus had combined to create an urgent situation.
Smith reported in December that the agency has been working on hiring new employees. She said 19 people were hired at a December job fair to work at the Kearney facility, while at least half of the 25-30 positions at the new Lincoln facility have been filled, and job offers are out to additional people.
In addition, she said, HHS has been working with the state Department of Education to address gaps in schooling for the teen girls who were moved out of Geneva. She said that the agency’s priority had been on the safety and well-being of the girls and that their education was allowed to slide. As a result, they have to make up 242 instructional hours for the current school year.
“I take full responsibility for this oversight and I am working swiftly and closely to remedy the situation,” Smith said.
Committee members raised numerous concerns about the plan, such as the wisdom of having males and females on the same campus, even if they are kept separate.
Lawmakers also questioned whether it would harm girls to potentially be moved among three different YRTC facilities, where they would have to build relationships with three different groups of staff. In addition, they asked whether state law allows HHS to move youths from facility to facility, when judges order them sent to a specific place.
The YRTCs serve children ages 14-18 who are sent there by the courts for breaking the law. The number of youths sent to the facilities has dropped as new state laws limited judges to sending only youths who already have been through less restrictive treatment.