LINCOLN — State senators hoping to fix Nebraska's juvenile justice system will try to persuade their colleagues to buy the former Uta Halee Girls Village in Omaha.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said Wednesday he and other proponents of juvenile justice reform will seek an appropriation to buy the $2 million property, which closed as a privately run residential treatment center in late 2011.
Plans to reform juvenile justice call for moving away from institutional detention in favor of community-based treatment that keeps troubled youths in or as close to their homes as possible. A bill introduced by Ashford and co-sponsored by other lawmakers would close the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Geneva and Kearney.
If the bill passes, the state still will need a secure place to treat some of the roughly 240 young offenders housed in Kearney and Geneva, Ashford said.
“If we don't do it this session, the (Uta Halee) property will be sold,” he said.
Two recent disturbances at the Kearney center, including one that required a police response to restore control, illustrate the need to move quickly on reform plans, Ashford said.
“We're getting close to the point where it's a crisis, an emergency situation,” he said.
The property currently is held by First National Bank, which acquired it for a little more than $2 million last summer at a trustees auction.
The state would run the 27-acre property with multiple buildings as a secure center with staff on-site. But Ashford said the newer Omaha center, which formerly housed up to 60 girls, is better suited for delivering treatment and therapy than the Kearney and Geneva campuses.
For example, residents would stay and sleep in smaller rooms with fewer roommates at Uta Halee, he said. The barracks-style sleeping quarters at the Kearney center have been blamed for contributing to fights and disturbances.
Equally as important, an Omaha location would keep many of the troubled youths assigned to Kearney and Geneva closer to home, Ashford said. Family involvement in therapy helps reduce reoffense rates after the juveniles leave a center.
Last year, just less than half the residents at the male center in Kearney came from Douglas and Lancaster Counties, while about 60 percent of those assigned to the girls home in Geneva came from the state's two largest counties.
Details on whether the center would be run by the state or a private provider would have to be worked out. Ashford said Boys Town expressed no interest, based on preliminary discussions. Supporters of the former Uta Halee center will see irony in the idea because they argued the state played a part in the center's demise. It ran into financial difficulties after changes in Medicaid rules reduced the number of children who qualified for publicly funded care.
Sarah Forrest, juvenile justice policy coordinator with Voices for Children in Nebraska, said acquiring the Uta Halee property could fit within the larger reform effort as long as it is not viewed as a newer version of the old detention centers. Public safety demands that a small percentage of juvenile offenders spend time in a security facility.
“Our first priority would be getting those kids out who don't belong in detention and get them in community-based treatment,” she said.
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