Proponents of a proposed Douglas County justice center are touting new efforts to increase services to troubled youths and alternative placements to juvenile detention as a vote nears on issuing $114 million in bonds to pay for the county project.

Five such efforts were listed during a presentation by HDR Inc. Vice President Bruce Carpenter at a board meeting last week of the nonprofit corporation set up to develop the project. They’re likely to be promoted at public forums that the Douglas County Board has scheduled for May 6, 7 and 9 as proponents of the project seek to address criticism that their project is focusing too much on erecting buildings and not enough on improving the juvenile justice system or services for youths and families.

Carpenter listed five such efforts, all involving nonprofit social service providers and private donors. Calls to the nonprofits indicated that one of the five efforts has launched. Two others have staff, space and beginning funding set up and are expected to begin providing services soon. On the fourth program, the nonprofit is interested but has not yet committed.

The fifth and most ambitious program has the backing of a donor, the Sherwood Foundation, which is reportedly committing money to several of the programs, but is only in the very early stages of discussion.

By highlighting the efforts now, proponents of the downtown justice center project, which would include a courthouse annex and juvenile detention center, are seeking not only to address criticism from the general public but also specifically from Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle.

Boyle has voted for the project on the County Board. But as a member of the Omaha-Douglas Public Building Commission, he cast the deciding vote in a 3-2 vote against issuing bonds to pay for the project. Boyle said that the proposed detention center was too small and that planning for alternative programs and services was not far enough along.

Since then, the County Board has tweaked the plan for the detention center part of the project. The county was proposing to build it with rooms to detain 48 youths, with space to expand capacity to 64 if necessary. Now the proposal calls for a capacity of 64, with the option to reduce the number of beds if they aren’t needed by the time the new center would be completed.

The bonds are expected to come up for a vote again in May.

The five efforts being touted by the project’s proponents :

  • Mental and behavioral health services from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Creighton University and the Charles Drew Health Center.
  • A “reception program” at the Child Saving Institute for youths picked up by police on suspicion of running away or other minor, nonviolent transgressions.
  • Shelter space at Uta Halee Academy for girls as an alternative to detention.
  • Housing space at the Omaha Home for Boys for “new services and programs.”
  • Planning for a “juvenile behavioral/mental health” treatment facility.

The program involving UNMC and Charles Drew is the only one of the efforts that has actually launched. It places a psychiatrist and a substance abuse specialist doctor in the Douglas County Youth Center, the current juvenile detention center, for four hours a week to evaluate youths, and then offers ongoing treatment to the youths.

The Douglas County Board agreed to a contract and approved $31,000 in funding for a six-month pilot program. It launched about a month ago, Charles Drew CEO Kenny McMorris said.

“They’ve started doing referrals, and young folks are coming into our model of care, which is more comprehensive and involves their families as well,” McMorris said.

He said he expects the program to continue regardless of what happens with the building project.

Douglas County Board Chairman Chris Rodgers has been talking about the Child Saving Institute program for months but only in general terms. Last week, Lisa Blunt, the institute’s chief operating officer, said the program will be up and running within two months.

“We’ve gotten some funding and we are piloting the program with (State of Nebraska) juvenile probation and the Omaha Police Department,” Blunt said.

The money came from a state grant through Douglas County and from a private donor. She wouldn’t name the donor.

Under the program, police would take certain youths arrested on suspicion of low-level, nonviolent transgressions to the Child Saving Institute, 45th and Dodge Streets, for initial evaluation instead of to the county’s juvenile detention center. Blunt said the youths will be evaluated by probation staff, among others, and then placed within hours. They won’t stay at the institute overnight. Blunt expects that many of the youths will be placed with their families, but others might go to shelters or other placements. The institute will offer follow-up care.

“They’re not a risk,” Blunt said. “They’re not going to pose a risk. We’re trying to keep them out of the justice system and keep them on a more treatment-oriented path.”

At Uta Halee, 12 shelter beds and staffing that includes an in-house therapist have been designated for short-term crisis stabilization as an alternative to detention for qualifying girls in the Douglas County Youth Center, said Michael Cantrell, executive director of Rite of Passage Uta Halee Academy. Rite of Passage is the Nevada-based for-profit company that now operates Uta Halee.

Cantrell said the organization had been approached by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies to increase the amount of space available for girls with court-approved orders to be released for such a short-term placement. Cantrell said in late March that he hoped the “crisis stabilization unit” would be available by April 30, but he could not be reached for comment last week.

Plans for new services and programs at the Omaha Home for Boys are not nearly as far along. Jeff DeWispelare, Home for Boys president and CEO, said the agency has been approached about providing space for a crisis stabilization shelter, family support and other services for youths as an alternative to detention. He said his organization, which is assessing its overall services, is researching the idea.

“We see the need and we have space possibilities,” said DeWispelare, whose nonprofit already provides day reporting and clinical services for troubled youths. “We are looking at whether and how we can jump in and help. ... It’s really preliminary from our end.”

Details about the fifth effort, a mental and behavioral health treatment facility, are hard to come by. It reportedly would be funded by Susie Buffett’s Sherwood Foundation. Calls seeking comment from Kerri Peterson, who works on juvenile justice issues for the foundation, were not returned.

George Achola, a vice president of Burlington Capital, the company that would be hired to manage the justice center construction, said Sherwood “has agreed in principle to be the lead donor on a residential mental health and substance abuse center” for high-risk youths in detention. Achola said it would have space for 18 to 20 youths.

It is a concept that is “in preliminary evaluation mode,” Achola said.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, a proponent of the justice center project, said he has been involved in discussions about the efforts.

“The prospects are very good that these things are going to happen, because there are a lot of people who are working very hard to make the system better and fill the gaps in the system,” Kleine said.

But Douglas County Board member Jim Cavanaugh, who opposes building a juvenile detention center downtown and proposes renovating the current detention center instead, noted that the UNMC/Charles Drew program is the only one that actually exists.

He said he has not seen any written agreements or approvals for the other programs from the governmental bodies that would oversee them. Cavanaugh said HDR, which would be the architect on the justice center project, and other promoters of it are talking about programs because “they are trying to sell a construction project.”

LaVon Stennis-Williams, who runs a reentry program and works on juvenile justice issues as a community representative, said the efforts being discussed “are all good things, but they don’t go far enough, and we’re starting at the wrong point.”

Stennis-Williams said the county “still has the cart before the horse” in planning buildings before creating institutional change that addresses racial biases in the juvenile justice system and helps families so that fewer children become involved in the juvenile justice system.

“The cart is still before the horse until we get the parents brought to the table,” she said.

Chris Burbach covers the Douglas County Board, Planning Board and other local government bodies, as well as local neighborhood issues. Follow him on Twitter @chrisburbach. Phone: 402-444-1057.

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