LINCOLN — A Kearney lawmaker warned Monday that the state is “sitting on a powder keg” following a string of assaults and escapes at a troubled state juvenile center over the weekend.
According to State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, the incidents at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center included an assault by four male teens early Friday morning that sent three staff members to the hospital.
There also was an assault Thursday in which a male youth stabbed a staff member with a ceiling tile support, as well as two escapes involving three teens on Saturday and Sunday.
“The YRTC was built for misguided youth,” he said. “It was not built for hardened criminals and that’s what we have here now. The city of Kearney is tired of this.”
Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, also expressed concern about what appears to be an escalating situation at the state institution for juvenile offenders.
Since August, the Kearney center has housed both male and female juvenile offenders. The girls were moved out of a similar center in Geneva after staff shortages, inadequate programming and deteriorating buildings combined to create a crisis situation.
“I’m very worried,” said Howard, who wondered whether the addition of the girls has made a fragile situation worse.
Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services said, in a statement, that they will have additional management on-site 24 hours a day “providing additional assistance and leadership to ensure safety and security for our team and the youth we serve.”
The statement also said the agency is “revisiting and strengthening protocols including those related to on-site and off-site visitation and furloughs, while continuing to maintain a family focus.”
“Providing a safe and secure environment for staff and the people we serve in all our DHHS facilities is a priority,” the statement said.
In response to the Geneva crisis, the Health and Human Services Committee last fall undertook an investigation of what led to and followed the crisis and are pursuing several pieces of legislation. Howard said she believes the recent assaults and escapes emphasize the need for more legislative structure and oversight for the juvenile centers.
But she disagreed with Lowe about whether the teens being sent to the center are worse than in past years. The committee’s study showed no change in the types of offenses that get youths sent to the state institution.
What has changed is a more correctional feel to the center, Howard said. She cited construction of a fence around the campus last year and the practice of shackling youths when they move between buildings.
State officials turned to those practices in response to local concern about escapes from the center.
Lowe predicted that someone would end up getting killed at the center unless something changes. He noted that authorities had responded to the Friday morning assaults with shotguns, not knowing what they would encounter or how many youths might be involved.
The incident occurred in one of the center’s barracks-style living units. He said one of the youths involved would not back down for some time.
“This was almost a life-and-death moment,” Lowe said.
He called for the state to create a new facility for the toughest 10 percent of the youth center’s residents, noting that the Buffalo County Jail has no room to take in juveniles, who must be housed separately from adults.
State officials have leased space in Lancaster County’s detention center building, in which they intend to serve male and female youths from the Kearney center who need intensive mental health services. The new site is part of a plan to create a system in which the Geneva campus would be used for a small group of female youths who are transitioning back to the community.
In the Saturday escape, a teen fled while visiting a local fast-food restaurant with family, according to an alert sent to nearby residents. On Sunday, two youths escaped and left in a red Buick Rainier. Late Monday morning, it was unclear whether the youths had been apprehended.
The recent assaults and escapes follow an incident the previous week in which two boys escaped from the center and allegedly stole two vehicles, assaulted a driver and racked up multiple potential charges in three counties.