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$700,000 fence fails to deter escapes at Kearney youth center

LINCOLN — In July, the state spent $700,000 to erect a 10-foot-high, chain-link fence around the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Kearney to deter escapes.

As soon as the fence went up, a local police officer put it to the test, according to Kearney Mayor Stan Clouse. It took the officer all of 10 seconds to climb up and over, Clouse said.

“The fence was a good-faith effort, but it doesn’t work,” Clouse said.

Recent statistics seem to bear that out: Since July 1, 15 kids have escaped from the center, or about one a week.

Now, state officials are reevaluating not only the fence, but also how to fill vacant jobs and improve programming at the state’s two youth treatment centers, the center for boys at Kearney and the temporarily closed facility for girls, the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Geneva.

State senators are conducting interim public hearings Wednesday in Geneva and Thursday in Kearney to explore possible solutions to staffing shortages and programming deficiencies at the two centers, which are operated by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. The centers attempt to rehabilitate youths ages 14 to 18 who are sent there by court order for breaking the law.

The state senator who leads the committee conducting the hearings said there were probably better ways to spend $700,000 in state funds than on the fence.

Sara Howard

“If the funds that were used for the fence would have been used for more staff and more programming, perhaps we would have had better outcomes,” said State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, who chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Besides the escapes at Kearney, and months-long concerns about assaults on staff, there have been other troubles recently.

In August, the state took emergency action and shut down the Geneva center due to unrepaired damage to buildings and staff shortages. In total, 28 girls were moved to the Kearney YRTC, which now houses 20 girls and 91 boys, and is staffed by employees from both centers, and supplemented by a private security firm that patrols just outside the fence.

Just when the girls might be returned to Geneva is unclear. Lancaster County officials have offered, on a temporary basis, to rent vacant beds for the girls at the county’s youth detention center in south Lincoln.

The state recently conducted job fairs at both centers to address chronic shortages of workers that required many employees to work double shifts to cover vacant posts. At the Kearney center, there were 27 job vacancies for youth security specialists as of 10 days ago. The results from the job fairs were modest — three job offers were extended at the Geneva event and seven at Kearney.

The fence at the Kearney YRTC was spurred by concern from area residents about escapes and thefts of vehicles from adjacent homes by escapees, as well as an increase in assaults on staff.

A year ago, Health and Human Services had asked for $3.9 million to build a 14-foot-tall “security” fence around the facility.

In January, State Sen. John Lowe, who represents Kearney, pared back the proposal to $2 million, saying that basic fencing found at Home Depot or Menards could be as effective.

John Lowe

“The idea of building a fence is one that’s been strongly supported in the Kearney community for several years,” Lowe told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee in March.

He added that besides blocking escapes, it might also reduce assaults on staff, which totaled over 100 in 2017, by allowing staff to focus on treating youths rather than watching for escapes. The bill was supported by the City of Kearney, but opposed by two advocacy groups, the ACLU of Nebraska and Voices for Children, because it would make the YRTC more “prison like” and less about rehabilitation.

But in the end, the legislative proposal was dropped after the Department of Health and Human Services found $700,000 within its budget for the 10-foot-high fence. The fence, it should be pointed out, does not have razor wire or barbed-wire at the top, like security fences that ring state prisons.

Lowe did not respond to several requests for comment about the fence over the past week. But Grand Island Sen. Dan Quick, who last year sought an alternative — a $3.9 million boost in rehabilitation programming at the YRTCs — said he still believes the fence was not the answer.

Dan Quick

Quick said in his conversations with YRTC staff, judges and others involved with troubled juveniles, the thing that’s been lacking at the YRTCs has been effective programming. His proposal would boost staffing to one per every eight kids, which he said would serve to make a fence unnecessary.

“It’s not supposed to be a prison. It’s supposed to be treatment and rehabilitation, to help them get back to the community and be successful,” Quick said.

Howard said that she hopes to learn more at the public hearings in Geneva and Kearney, but that effective youth treatment centers she’s seen have aggressive programming, stable staffing and few escapes.

“I don’t think the fence is doing the job,” she said. “It’s the perfect height now that kids can get over it, and staff can’t.”

Meet the Nebraska state senators

UPS drones win milestone permission from the FAA

United Parcel Service has won U.S. certification to fly drones under regulations similar to those for airlines, a milestone that allows the company to vastly expand airborne deliveries.

The Federal Aviation Administration gave the courier permission to use delivery drones at hospital, university and corporate campuses with few restrictions, for example, letting operators fly the aircraft at night and over people. Current regulations prohibit drone flights after dark, over people, beyond the remote pilot's line of sight and at weights heavier than 55 pounds.

"We believe now there are hundreds of campuses across the United States where we're going to be able to offer this solution," UPS Chief Transformation Officer Scott Price said in an interview. "We're pretty confident we're going to be at the forefront of trialing the various models."

The FAA's decision, announced Tuesday, is a big step forward in the move toward routine drone shipments. The devices promise to reduce carriers' costs as the surge of e-commerce increases demand for home delivery, which squeezes profit margins because there are fewer packages per location than at business addresses.

So significant is the FAA certification that UPS Chief Executive Officer David Abney has been planning to ring a bell in the company's Atlanta headquarters that is reserved for corporate milestones, such as big mergers.

The company said it has already made more than 1,000 revenue-generating test flights at the Wake Med hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, recently including the first beyond the operator's line of sight. UPS expects to roll out more drone deliveries, especially in less populated areas, in advance of more expansive drone-delivery regulations that are expected in 2021.

The FAA certification comes under Part 135 of FAA regulations, which requires extensive manuals, training routines, maintenance plans and a safety program. The designation for UPS also makes it easier to obtain exemptions at locations other than campuses.

UPS, which operates 564 owned and leased traditional airplanes, is interested in drone deliveries of parcels aswell as heavy cargo, Price said. The company plans to announce strategic partnerships with drone-makers, the designers of traffic-management systems and customers such as retailers.

"We don't limit ourselves by weight" or in other ways, Price said.

Drone adoption has been slow going as authorities wrestled with how to regulate the devices. Early drone deliveries such as those conducted by UPS and other companies have helped authorities and couriers address challenges such as creating a traffic-management system and testing technology for the unmanned aircraft to avoid objects in flight.

Alphabet Inc.'s Wing, an offshoot of Google, received partial approval to operate as a small commercial airline in April. The company announced Sept. 19 that it will begin delivery tests in Virginia in a partnership with FedEx Corp. and Wal-greens Boots Alliance Inc.

Amazon.com unveiled a sophisticated drone design in June and said it hoped to begin testing it soon. The online retailer hasn't commented on whether it is seeking similar FAA approvals. Several businesses have received approval to fly beyond an operator's line out of sight in FAA test programs.

Several other companies, including Flirtey Inc. and Zipline, are seeking approvals or have conducted delivery flights in other countries.

UPS already is proving that it can deliver products faster and cheaper by drone, Price said. WakeMed will be able to keep anti-venom medication at a central location and send it by drone to where it's needed, reducing the cost of keeping inventory at several buildings.

Drone deliveries have huge potential, Price said, though he declined to speculate how much revenue they will be able to generate.

"It wasn't too long ago that people thought selling books online was a niche business," he said. "The world needs to not limit what is the future because I think there is massive opportunity here."

Flash flood watch continues for parts of Nebraska, Iowa, but river flooding may be minor

Don’t put away those umbrellas yet.

The rainy start to fall continues, with occasional showers in the forecast for Wednesday due to a band of storms lingering across a swath of Nebraska and western Iowa.

Up to 2 inches of rain was expected to fall across the Omaha metro area between Tuesday and Wednesday, with the potential for even more rainfall in some isolated areas and strong storms possible in southeast Nebraska and southwest Iowa. Eppley Airfield reported 1.47 inches of rain in the 12 hours ending at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Because of the already-saturated ground, local officials are keeping an eye out for localized flash flooding and rising water on the Missouri River. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch into Wednesday morning.

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But weather service meteorologist Cathy Zapotocny said forecasters have downgraded some previous estimates of how high the Missouri will get, with minor flooding expected on the Missouri at Omaha and Nebraska City, peaking Friday.

The recent spate of wet weather follows a seriously soggy spring and summer. Nebraska averaged 5 inches of rain in August, two-tenths of an inch above the previous record set in 1977, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

The Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District on Tuesday closed its Elkhorn River access sites to boats and other recreational activities, including the West Maple Road and Graske Crossing sites.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has warned drivers to check road conditions in case heavy rains lead to road closures again on local roads and major highways like Interstates 29 and 680.

The cold front that blew in with the rain should keep the area cool, with highs in the low 60s. Clearing skies were expected for Thursday, with more showers possible Friday and Saturday.

Photos: Major flooding hit Nebraska and Iowa towns in March 2019

E-cigarettes 'not as safe as we thought,' warns family of Omaha man whose death is tied to vaping

The wife and daughter of a Nebraska man whose May death now is linked to vaping are warning those still using the products.

“The message is, ‘Don’t do this until we know more,’ ” said Kathleen Fimple of Omaha.

John Steffen, Fimple’s husband of nearly 37 years, died May 10 after being hospitalized for what the family believed was pneumonia. His death certificate, Fimple said, listed the cause of death as acute respiratory failure, with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder as a contributor.

State health officials this week reported Nebraska’s first death related to severe lung disease associated with the use of e-cigarettes, or vaping. Fimple said officials confirmed to the family that the death was her husband’s. Twelve other such deaths have been reported nationwide, in 10 other states.

The family was well aware of Steffen’s COPD. The 68-year-old started smoking in the 1960s at a time when it was considered cool, said daughter Dulcia Steffen, also of Omaha.

Fimple said her husband quit smoking around 2000 and later started again. When e-cigarettes came out, he decided to try them. “Initially, he was thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll quit,’ ” she said. “I also think he believed this was better for him, even if he didn’t quit. This was better (for his health) than cigarettes.”

Dr. Tom Safranek, Nebraska’s state epidemiologist, said health officials strongly encourage smokers to try other methods of quitting. Studies of vaping-related illness and of vaping products remain a “work in progress.”

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Safranek said pneumonia often used as a general term and usually implies an infection.

But what set the case apart, he said, was the “ground glass appearance” in lung imaging, which is part of the definition the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has established for the vaping-related illness.

Investigators also looked for but did not find infectious agents, another deciding factor, he said.

Vaping-related lung injuries weren’t reported and tracked by public health agencies until an outbreak in Wisconsin and Illinois in August. Once the problem was recognized, states stepped up surveillance and discovered not only current cases but also others, such as Steffen’s, that occurred before the August outbreak.

As of Friday, 805 lung injury cases had been reported nationwide in 46 states and one U.S. territory. Many of those cases have been reported in young men. Most reported using vaping products containing THC, the high-inducing compound in marijuana, although some reported using only nicotine-containing compounds.

Fimple said she and her daughter want people to know that the illness doesn’t just strike young men.

She and Dulcia Steffen stressed that John Steffen, a retired land surveyor, purchased only sealed, branded vaping products from big-name retail stores, never the illegally refilled packages often mentioned in connection with vaping-related illness.

“He would have never used THC and, honestly, wouldn’t know where to go to get one,” Dulcia Steffen said.

While slowed in recent years by his lung condition, John Steffen enjoyed traveling, hunting, fishing, hiking and camping and had served as a scoutmaster with a Boy Scout troop in Lincoln for youths with developmental disabilities. For years, he volunteered with Special Journeys, a company that provides travel opportunities for people with special needs. He also is survived by sons Jeremy and Joshua, both of Omaha.

His wife and daughter advised those using e-cigarettes to quit smoking to try something else, particularly until more is known about vaping.

The CDC has recommended that the public consider not using e-cigarettes or vaping products, particularly those containing THC, during their investigation. Youths, young adults and pregnant women should not use them.

Fimple said she’d like to see a temporary ban until more is known. She acknowledged that a ban is unlikely, given that tobacco products are legal. But vaping materials should carry health warnings, as cigarettes and alcohol do.

Some steps are being taken to address what types of products are available and where they can be used.

The Trump administration last month announced plans to ban flavored e-cigarettes. Grand Island, Nebraska, is among a number of local and state governments that now ban vaping, as well as smoking, in public places. Kearney’s mayor recently ordered city staff to study whether to enact a similar ban there.

Said Dulcia Steffen, “I want to get the message out to people that these things are not as safe as we thought they were.”

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