This story was originally published Aug. 31, 2014

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LINCOLN — Nearly three years have passed since the last girl moved out of Uta Halee Girls Village and the residential treatment center closed.

Now the quiet, wooded campus in the north Omaha bluffs is once again home to troubled girls.

Rite of Passage, a Nevada-based youth services provider, opened its first Nebraska program, the Uta Halee Academy, in December.

The program takes in girls ages 14 through 18 who are on probation, are state wards or are placed by their parents.

“We’re the first female academy program in Rite of Passage,” said Michael Cantrell, the program director. “We’re kind of creating a blueprint.”

The blueprint builds on models and practices honed within Rite of Passage’s growing portfolio of programs for troubled and at-risk youth.

The company began in 1984 as a program offering an alternative to incarceration for a handful of teenage boys in Nevada. It now operates 23 residential and nonresidential programs in eight states. They range from community-based treatment to secure facilities.

The company has been opening one or two new programs a year in recent years. Like Uta Halee Academy, some occupy facilities once operated by other providers.

Eleven other programs use the residential academy model, which focuses on education as well as therapy. Youths have a chance to participate in organized sports, learn vocational skills and do community service.

“It’s not just about being therapeutic but also social growth,” Cantrell said.

Uta Halee Academy offers a highly structured program, where girls work their way through three levels of privileges and responsibilities. Uniforms identify each girl’s level.

Girls have to reach specific goals for the week to do off-campus activities, such as going to movies or doing community service at a local nursing home.

School takes up the biggest portion of the day. Girls also have therapy groups every day and exercise six of seven days a week.

The afternoons allow time for soccer, volleyball, basketball and track or vocational training in horticulture and, in the future, culinary arts.

Cantrell said some aspects of the program are included specifically for girls.

There is a “Seeking Safety” program that addresses the common issue of trauma, he said. Nail-painting, hair-fixing and crocheting are among the leisure options.

Each girl also gets to choose a stuffed animal upon arrival, a touch not offered in the Rite of Passage boys programs.

“Quite frankly, at the core, they’re still kids,” Cantrell said.

But they also are kids with problems. For safety, the girls are subject to bed checks every 15 minutes during the night and must ask staff before using the bathroom. The cottage doors lock at night to keep girls in.

The program came to public attention earlier this month when two girls allegedly assaulted a staff member and took her credit cards and a set of keys that included an Uta Halee master key.

The girls were arrested in Lincoln after being on the run for about a week and a half.

Mary Fraser Meints, former president of Uta Halee Girls Village, said the new program helps fill a need for residential care for girls in Nebraska.

While state officials have been focusing on keeping more children at home and developing services for them there, not all youngsters can be safely treated at home, she said.

Uta Halee Girls Village had offered many of the same services as the new program, along with in-home services and higher level psychiatric residential care, Meints said.

But the agency struggled financially as state referrals of children slowed dramatically under new Medicaid rules.

Cantrell said he wasn’t familiar enough with Uta Halee Girls Village to compare it with the new program.

He said Rite of Passage came to Nebraska because it saw a need for a girls residential program and because of the property available.

The company also has had a longstanding relationship with state officials because of state wards sent to another facility it operates, Canyon State Academy in Arizona, he said.

Rite of Passage bought the main portion of the Uta Halee property last year, paying $1.75 million for 27 acres and nine buildings. It added the remaining 11 acres in January at a cost of $300,000.

The first girl moved in Dec. 2, Cantrell said. There are 24 girls in two cottages now, with plans to open another cottage in late September. The third cottage would allow the program to accommodate up to 36 girls.

Eventually, Cantrell said, he hopes to use the older building on the north end of the campus for girls who have been involved with sex trafficking. Those are girls needing intensive treatment for mental health problems and for trauma, he said.

That portion of the program would be certified as a Medicaid provider.

Under state regulations, the current program is considered group home care, which is not covered by Medicaid. Payment comes from child welfare funds, probation dollars and private sources.

Meints consulted with the new program initially. She said Rite of Passage has a good reputation and the company is experienced and uses evidence-backed practices.

“The people I worked with were dedicated, knowledgeable and passionate,” she said.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9583, martha.stoddard@owh.com

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