Dannette Smith, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, told a panel of state lawmakers Wednesday that she is still putting together a plan for serving the teenage girls who were removed from the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Geneva.
She had ordered the girls moved to a similar institution for boys in Kearney on Aug. 19, after concluding that staff shortages, inadequate programming and deteriorating buildings had combined to create an urgent situation in Geneva.
On Wednesday, she would not say whether girls would return to Geneva, stay in Kearney or go elsewhere. Nor would she say what changes might be made in their programs and services. She offered no timeline for making those decisions.
“We want to ensure the safety and the well-being of all children that we serve at the YRTCs in Kearney and Geneva,” she said. “In order to put a really good program together, it takes you a little bit of time. I don’t want to be quick to a decision. I want the decision to be spot on for the youth and families we’re serving.”
Smith testified at a legislative hearing of the Health and Human Services Committee that was held just down the road from the Geneva center. Earlier in the day, she joined committee members in touring the facility and getting a firsthand look at the repairs underway on three housing units.
Journalists were not allowed on the tour, but state senators reported major improvements in the LaFlesche building, which had housed girls who needed higher-security housing until sewer problems made the building unlivable. They also said mold removal was underway in the Sacajawea building.
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Lawmakers who visited the center in mid-August reported finding housing units with holes in the walls, exposed wiring, broken sprinkler heads, damaged light fixtures and malfunctioning fire locks, among other problems.
State Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth, who represents Geneva and joined the tour, said the amount of repair work leads him to believe that HHS will reopen the facility.
“I don’t know why they would spend all that money and not come back,” he said, though he noted that Smith “holds her cards really close to her vest.”
For her part, Smith said that the renovations will provide options for placing youths and that it is valuable to have as many options as possible.
Some area residents said they think the state’s options should include a juvenile prison or some other institution to handle the most difficult girls. Fillmore County Sheriff William Burgess said a small handful of the girls have been responsible for many of the problems at the Geneva center.
But Frank Heinisch, a Geneva attorney and longtime member of the center’s Community Advisory Board, said the center can work with those girls if they can be segregated from the others long enough. He said the center has a history of being able to help girls turn their lives around.
Mary Stofer, who retired from the Geneva facility a few years ago, said the center has been caught in a debate about whether it should be in the business of corrections or social services. She also said there has been tension in the past over differences between the Geneva and Kearney centers and whether a gender-specific approach is needed for girls.
Other area residents talked about the community’s unique relationship with the Geneva girls.
Jill Schmidt, a business owner and local Chamber of Commerce leader, said the girls have volunteered in a number of community activities. She said many families, including her own, have welcomed the girls into their homes for visits.
Until August, the Geneva center served girls ages 14 through 18 who were sent there by the courts for breaking the law. The center has a capacity of 82 girls but held far fewer in recent years, after new state laws limited judges from sending girls who had not been through less-restrictive treatment.
The center has an accredited high school and is one of the largest employers in the southeast Nebraska community where it has been since 1892.
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The moon rose over the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in the early morning hours.
On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Ed Morrissette a 95-year-old WWII veteran of Papillion, reminisced while toasting to his fallen comrades with a drink accompanied by John Adams, Tom Demro, Antonio Chickinelli and Jeff Hadden at Patriarch Distillers Inc. in La Vista, Nebraska, Thursday, June 6, 2019. Morrissette who was part of the second wave on D-Day at Omaha Beach drank a Canada Dry while the others had Soldier Valley Omaha Beach D-Day 75th anniversary bourbon whiskey.
Major League Baseball debuted in Omaha on Thursday June 13th as the Royals faced the Tigers at TD Ameritrade Park.
Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera signed autographs for fans prior to a Major League Baseball game against the Kansas City Royals at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska, on Thursday, June 13, 2019.
Omaha Burke's Jaylon Roussell jogged the field people to participating in the Nebraska Cornhuskers Friday Night Lights event at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Louisville's Adam Elliott warmed up before the start of game 7 of the College World Series.
Louisville's Drew Campbell celebrated a walk-off win on his hit in the bottom of the 9th against Mississippi State during game ten of the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park.
Te'Andi Titus, left, and Kevin Kalaw, both of Omaha, read on the dock at Standing Bear Lake as a cool breeze swept over the lake, keeping the mosquitoes at bay.
Vanderbilt and Michigan faced off in the College World Series finals at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska in 2019.
Michigan's Jordan Brewer and Jack Blomgren celebrated after defeating Vanderbilt in their College World Series game.
A B-2 stealth bomber flew over as Michigan stands during the National Anthem before their College World Series game.
Vanderbilt faces Michigan during their College World Series game.
Vanderbilt's Harrison Ray signed autographs before the start of game 3 of the CWS championship.
Vanderbilt fans celebrate at the Commodores capture a national title with a win over Michigan.
Michigan players mingled prior to their College World Series game against Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt celebrated their win over Michigan during the third game of the champion series of the College World Series.
Chris Isaak performed at the free Memorial Park Concert at Memorial Park.
Omaha firefighter David Kirchofer provided water to Louie the dog, after Kirchofer helped battle a a fire at 5427 86th Court. Louie, who does not live in the unit that caught fire, was interested in all the action.
Ray Renk of San Francisco, California, holds his daughter Kennedy, 8, alongside his son Benjamin, 10, while sporting personalized suits and watching Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, walk the convention floor during the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting at the CHI Health Center Omaha in Omaha, Nebraska, Saturday, May 4, 2019.
Phoebe the giraffe eats lettuce fed by visitors as the Lincoln Children's Zoo provides a sneak peek at their new exhibits and expansion in Lincoln, Nebraska, Thursday, May 9, 2019.
Lincoln Southeast’s Katie Whitehead, center, and Caroline Miller, right, celebrate with teammates including Ally Keitges, left, after winning the No. 1 doubles against Millard North during the NSAA Class A girls state tennis championship match at Koch Family Tennis Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Friday, May 17, 2019.
Omaha Bryanâ€™s Darwin Loftin lands a long jump during the Metro Conference track meet at Omaha Burke.
Millard West's Corbin Hawkins waits out the rain delay in the dugout. The baseball game between Millard West and Creighton Prep was postponed because of the weather.
Archbishop Bergan's Luke Jessen hits the center field wall trying to catch a hit from Millard West's Max Anderson resulting in an in-field home run during their state tournament game.
Crawford's Jillian Brennan (13) points up to the sky before the Class D 3,200-meter final at Omaha Burke High School during day one of the state track meet.
Gretna's Ashley Marsh connects with the ball alongside Marian's Maureen Tolley during the semifinal round of the Class A girls state soccer tournament at Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, Saturday, May 11, 2019.
Elkhorn South players celebrate their championship while reading the name plate on the trophy after defeating Skutt during the NSAA Class B girls state soccer championship game Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
Jacob Himelick, left, a Millard north senior, chats with fellow senior Jace January as he signs January's year book. January likes to spend the time between classes greeting fellow students in the hallway.
Hannah Gruhlkey hugs her goat Griffin as he nibbles on her hair during a Country Bumpkin 4-H Club meeting at the Living Legend Farm.
Chipper Fyfe stands on a dike to see how far floodwaters have risen just west of Hamburg, Iowa.
Nebraska pitchers stay loose before their NCAA Regional game in Oklahoma City.
Tad Badje, 49, right, and wife Shelly Badje, 48, pepper Title Boxing Club's general manager, Chris Gerhardt's mid-section during a two-on-one body shot race as part of their work out at Title Boxing Club in Omaha, Nebraska.
Two-year-old Hannah Bonnot of Denver, Colorado, stands in awe before "Mountain Outlaw" taken at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, on display at Tom Mangelsen's "Life in the Wild" exhibition at the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.
A deer walks through the tall grass at Chalco Hills Recreation Area in Omaha, Nebraska.
Canada geese fly over Flanagan Lake at sunset in Omaha, Nebraska.
The sunset is reflected in some open water at Flanagan Lake in Omaha, Nebraska.
Ian Murphy, canvases the nearly 90 snow people which are on display at the Leavenworth Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Neighbors such as Murphy say the snow people didn't exist yesterday and claim it happened over night or possibly early this morning.
Husker fans rock The Rock and corn hats in the first half as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln men's basketball team hosts Michigan State at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.
An allosaurus appears to be eyeing a tasty, 19-month-old morsel named Austin Haseltine as he is lifted from the shoulders of his grandpa, Greg Fasano, by his mother, Amy Haseltine, with his father, Jim Haseltine looking on. The Dinosaur UpROAR exhibit at Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft Street in Omaha, Nebraska, features 20 life-sized installations as well as discovery stations and educational activities set throughout the gardens.
The setting moon is framed by some dried flowers at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
A person goes for a run along the snow covered trails at Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
The sun rises on a snow covered Lake Zorinsky in Omaha, Nebraska.
Pink and blue balloons float past the Sower statue on the Nebraska State Capitol after balloons were released for the 45th annual Nebraska Walk for Life in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Steam rises over north downtown Omaha, Nebraska, as morning lows were below -10 degrees.
Water covers a road near Valley, Nebraska, on Friday, March 15, 2019.
Heavy machinery stacks up concrete chunks on the shore of the Elkhorn River at the Q Street bridge as part of an effort to stabilize the bank on the recently flooded river.
Sarpy County Sheriff's Deputy Darin Morrissey rides an ATV through floodwaters in Hawaiian Village.
Omaha Roncalli's Shane Orr celebrates their double overtime win over Aurora during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The Auburn bench and crowd react to Auburn's Cameron Binder hitting what would be the game winning shot against North Bend Central during the championship game in the Class C1 Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Nebraskaâ€™s Adrian Martinez runs out of the end zone after a play during spring football practice at the Hawks Championship Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Treyton Gubser, left, and his uncle Daniel Gubser paddle using shovels through the floodwaters after they rescued Daniel's kid's cat, Bob, in Hamburg, Iowa.
Highway 81 is covered in floodwaters south of Columbus, Nebraska.
A Nebraska National Guard helicopter flies over a flooded Waterloo, Nebraska, in March.
Cars drive drive across a flooded Platte River on Highway 50 just north of Louisville, Nebraska.
A Canada goose flies over Matthew J. Placzek's "Monument to Labor" sculpture as floodwaters from the Missouri River begin to recede on the Omaha riverfront.
Floodwaters closed Ave I at North 26th Street in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
A truck drives through a flooded road near the Platte River in April.
Lincoln Pius X's Austin Jablonski holds up the net after his team defeated Omaha Roncalli in the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Amelia Fritz, right, holds on to her daughter-in-law Tesha Fritz in Glenwood, Iowa. They were evacuated from Pacific Junction, Iowa, after floodwaters hit the town last night. They were part of 15-relatives all staying in the same house or in a camper in the front driveway.
Robert Jones looks around his flood damaged house north of Highway 50, near Louisville,Nebraska. The floor, which is normally a white tile, is covered in mud.
Aurora's Nicholas Hutsell, left, fouls Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Lincoln Pius X's Charlie Easley, left, and and Omaha Roncalli's Alexander Rodgers stretch for a loose ball during the championship game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family's Trent Reardon, left and Jason Sjuts celebrate their victory over Fremont Bergan during the championship game in the Class D1 Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Aurora's Kaleb Moural wipes the sweat from his face during the second half against Omaha Roncalli during a semifinal game in the Class B Nebraska state basketball tournament at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Bob the cat looks on from a basket in a boat after being rescued from floodwaters in Hamburg, Iowa.
A vehicle is stuck in floodwaters near 1st Street and Pierce Street in Fremont, Nebraska.