KEARNEY — State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney was pleased with the two days of hearings about the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Kearney and Geneva.
“I thought the last two days, that the hearings went very well. A lot of voices were heard and I believe the committee heard some great information from all sides,” Lowe said Friday.
The Nebraska Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee hosted a hearing Wednesday in Geneva and a second one Thursday afternoon in Kearney to allow state senators and Nebraska officials to hear from YRTC staff and residents.
The committee will now look at the issues brought up at the meeting, Lowe said, and see how they can be improved upon. The state senators who serve on the committee are Chair Sara Howard of Omaha, Vice Chair John Arch of La Vista, Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, Ben Hansen of Blair, Dave Murman of Glenvil, Lynne Walz of Fremont and Matt Williams of Gothenburg.
Lowe has introduced legislative resolutions LR103, while Sen. Dan Quick has introduced LR200, which would address staffing issues and the programming being offered to teens during their time at the Kearney and Geneva facilities.
As for the 2020 Legislative session, Lowe said he is hopeful a bill he introduced in the 2019 session, LB485, requesting $2 million to erect a fence at YRTC, will stay alive in the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. The fence, which costs $700,000, was paid for out of the DHHS budget.
Lowe said the LB845 could be used to complete the fence project. He said Appropriations Chair Sen. John Stinner of Gering ultimately will decide whether the bill stays active and gets considered by the Legislature.
Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller, who oversees the county jail facility, told the committee on Thursday, “If I would’ve built a fence to keep people in, it wouldn’t look like that fence.”
If state officials wanted a fence, that didn’t resemble a correctional facility, Miller said, they could’ve added an inward facing barrier to keep teens from climbing over the top.
There have been several escapes reported since the new fence was erected earlier this year.
The debate concerning a fence at the Kearney YRTC has been ongoing for years.
Tami Moore of Kearney has spoken out publicly against the fence in the past and did so on Thursday.
“The fence was one of those things of doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons,” said Moore, who is a member of the Kearney City Council and a professor of family studies at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
The state failed to do its job, Moore told the committee, by not conducting a study to examine human development and behavioral issues associated with building a fence around the Kearney YRTC. She also questioned whether the facility has staff members in place who are qualified to understand child and adolescent development and human behavioral issues.
“Trap an adolescent male, and now females, and they will feel the need to problem-solve themselves out of the situation,” Moore said. “So the fence is really more of a challenge to them than it is a deterrent. We’ve seen that with the breakouts since it has been up.”