GENEVA — The State of Nebraska emptied its Youth Rehabilitation and Training Center in Geneva on Monday, moving all 24 of the girls still there to a similar facility for boys in Kearney.
The Geneva center for female juvenile offenders will be closed at least temporarily while state officials assess repairs to its residential buildings, reexamine programming and seek solutions to understaffing, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said Monday. The girls from Geneva will be housed in a secure area separate from the boys in Kearney.
It’s unclear how long the situation will last. Supporters of the center said they will work to see it reopen, given its importance to the local community.
The Geneva center serves girls ages 14 through 18 who are sent there by the courts for breaking the law. It has a capacity of 82 people and an accredited high school, and is one of the largest employers in the community.
Health and Human Services officials cite damage to residential buildings and “serious staffing challenges” at the Geneva facility.
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“The relocation also gives DHHS the opportunity to refresh the youth program from a clinical and programmatic standpoint,” the department said in a press release.
Dannette Smith, the department’s chief executive officer, said Monday that sometimes CEOs have to make tough decisions and that this is one of those times. She said she and other department leaders want the girls in their care to be in a “healthy, safe, well-maintained environment.
“I felt that wasn’t completely happening,” Smith said. “It necessitated a move right away.”
Asked whether the Geneva center will be reopened, she said that will depend on building repair cost estimates from the Department of Administrative Services. The ability to address understaffing is also a factor, she said.
“We have some girls who have some high-acuity mental health issues, some anger management issues, and our buildings have a hard time withstanding that,” Smith said.
The buildings, she said, weren’t designed to house people with those problems.
Asked whether the state might want to move the center closer to a larger population center to help with staffing, she said that could be a consideration.
“But we haven’t given up on Geneva,” Smith said.
She said the department is planning a job fair for mid-September in Geneva.
Monday’s move came one week after the department moved four girls out of a damaged residential building at the Geneva center. Girls reportedly had damaged fire sprinklers in the cottage, leading to water damage.
The Fillmore County Sheriff’s Office and Nebraska State Patrol were called in on Aug. 10 because of what Health and Human Services called a “disturbance” in which some girls refused to go to their rooms.
The state said one employee was hurt during the Aug. 10 incident, but it ended quietly after sheriff’s deputies and troopers were called.
The girls were refusing to sleep in the water-damaged building because it smelled of mildew and mold, said State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, who chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
Smith said Monday that there was no mold in the buildings.
In the Aug. 10 disturbance, Howard said, “One girl had a broom, another girl had an extension cord, and they sort of semi-circled around a (landline) phone so they could make phone calls.” She said the girls telephoned parents, a state ombudsman and a child abuse and neglect hotline.
After the incident, the state sent four Lancaster County girls to the Lancaster County Youth Services Center. They moved in Aug. 12, but had to move out three days later, after Lancaster County Attorney Patrick Condon got a court order barring them from the county detention facility.
State law does not allow youths to be held in detention after being adjudicated in court as juvenile offenders.
The state then moved the four girls to the Youth Rehabilitation and Training Center for boys in Kearney.
Back in Geneva, the state concentrated the remaining 24 girls in two residential buildings, before deciding to empty the Geneva campus.
Howard said there was a fire hazard in one of those two buildings. She said staff told a delegation of state senators who toured the facility that a mechanism that is supposed to unlock the doors of all the girls’ rooms in case of a fire didn’t work, raising concerns that they might be locked in their rooms if a fire occurred.
She also said some rooms did not have working lights, or any lights at all.
“These are spaces where you wouldn’t want your kids to be,” Howard said.
One of the four other residential buildings at the Geneva center already was closed for repairs. State Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, whose district includes Geneva, said the flooring for that building had been torn up some time ago to reach a malfunctioning sewer line.
He and Geneva Mayor Eric Kamler said Monday’s action raised concerns in Geneva that the state might close the facility. They said that with 70 to 80 full-time employees, the Geneva center is the third- or fourth-largest employer in Geneva, after schools and the Fillmore County Hospital.
Brandt said other buildings at the center — including the school, a gym and swimming pool, and the chapel — are in good condition. It has served the state of Nebraska well for 128 years, since 1891, he said.
“I have every expectation that the management of HHS, working with the administration, will get the facilities repaired, address the staffing and programming issues and move those individuals back to Geneva from Kearney,” Brandt said.
Kamler has been hearing from townspeople worried that the temporary closure might become permanent.
He said he and Brandt are working with Smith and other state officials to offer help and make sure they and Gov. Pete Ricketts know that their constituents want the Geneva center to reopen. Kamler said he has received positive signals from Smith.
“We’ve welcomed the people of the YRTC, whether it’s the staff or the inmates,” Kamler said.
He said some of the girls volunteer at youth soccer practices and the local theater, under staff supervision, as part of their rehabilitation.
“We’re certainly going to be very much fighting for this, working with the governor and HHS and Sen. Brandt,” Kamler said. “We want to try to keep the facility in Geneva.”