LINCOLN — State officials are asking judges to temporarily stop sending juvenile offenders to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Kearney, saying the troubled facility is at the “maximum safe census.”

Bo Botelho, chief operating officer and general counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services, made the request in a letter sent to judges on Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, a key lawmaker told the Appropriations Committee that the assaults and escapes increase the urgency of replacing the Kearney center’s barracks-style housing with private rooms and showers.

The HHS letter went out following a string of assaults and escapes at the state-run juvenile center over the weekend.

“DHHS places both the care and safety of all juveniles committed to the custody of the department and our teammates paramount,” Botelho said. “In order to ensure continued safety we respectfully request courts to pause future commitments for the next 10 days.”

The request did not sit well with Lancaster County Juvenile Court Judge Rodger Heideman. In a letter to senators, he said that most, if not all, youths headed for the center are being held in secure detention.

“I find this unacceptable to suggest we allow youth to remain in secure detention until DHHS can fulfill its statutory obligation to provide rehabilitative and treatment services,” he said.

Although the youth center has had a history of assaults and escapes in recent years, there have been five incidents in the past two weeks. They 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. Two boys escaped from the center the previous week and allegedly stole two vehicles, assaulted a driver and racked up multiple potential charges in three counties.

On Tuesday, State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, told colleagues that switching to private rooms would increase safety for both staff and youths. It also would bring Nebraska in line with best practices in juvenile facilities.

“Given the events of this past weekend, I feel very strongly that this committee needs to consider an investment to put rooms in there,” she said.

Legislative Bill 1146, which Howard introduced, would put $3 million toward building private rooms and shower facilities at the Kearney center.

The Kearney center, which had been for male teens, has housed both male and female teens since August. 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.

Meanwhile, the center’s communal shower facilities can exacerbate problems for female youths, who often have a history of sexual abuse and assault. Howard said the experience does not contribute to rehabilitation and treatment.

HHS provided no testimony on LB 1146.

When questioned later by the Appropriations Committee, HHS Facilities Director Mark LaBouchardiere said the department took no position because HHS officials would need to have an architect look at the potential cost of the work proposed. He said the construction would have to include such features as metal doors and walls that could not be destroyed easily.

Howard said LB 1146 grew out of the Health and Human Service’s Committee’s six-month investigation into the state’s centers for juvenile offenders. The investigation looked particularly at the events surrounding the deterioration of the youth center for female juvenile offenders in Geneva.

The girls were moved out of the Geneva center in August into the Kearney center, which previously housed only boys.

In response to the recent assaults and escapes, HHS officials said 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 agency also plans to set new limits on visitation and furloughs.