LINCOLN — Nebraska’s state-run institution for female juvenile offenders spiraled downhill rapidly.

Two years ago, state officials were crowing about the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Geneva earning a perfect score on an American Correctional Association accreditation audit.

It got top marks in the August 2017 audit for physical plant, safety and security, youth care, rehabilitation and education programs, staff training and more.

This August, officials removed all the girls from the center amid reports of buildings with holes in the walls, exposed wiring and malfunctioning fire locks, along with staff shortages so severe the girls could not go outside regularly, and programming so inadequate they spent hours watching television and playing cards.

“It’s like night and day,” said Scott Gregory, comparing the recent reports to the place he knew as principal of the Geneva center’s high school until 2016.

The Geneva center serves girls ages 14 through 18 who are sent there by the courts for breaking the law. It has a capacity of 82 girls but has held far fewer in recent years, after new state laws limited judges from sending girls who have 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.

In the wake of the girls’ removal on Monday, state officials and others have had trouble pinpointing the cause of the decline.

Dannette Smith, chief executive officer of the Department of Health and Human Services, called the situation a “perfect storm,” in which several factors converged and fed upon each other. Among them:

Girls

Smith said the teens sent to Geneva are coming in with more significant behavioral and mental health issues than in the past. That has contributed to an increase in assaults on staff and other youths and to destruction within the buildings.

“The young ladies we’re serving are vastly different,” Smith said.

That assessment is shared by Frank Heinisch, a Geneva attorney and member of the center’s Community Advisory Board. He has eaten lunch with the girls once a month for about 35 years. But he said he missed a couple lunches this spring because officials closed the cafeteria after incidents among the girls.

But Gregory said the center has dealt with difficult girls in the past. He said strong programming and continued training helped staff work with those girls, while maintenance staff quickly repaired any damage they caused. “The place I left was more than capable of taking care of them,” he said.

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From left, Nebraska State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks; Jerall Moreland, deputy state ombudsman; and Sens. Steve Lathrop and Tom Brandt tour the Sacagawea Cottage at the Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Geneva, Nebraska, on Aug. 16.

Staff

Like most other state institutions, the Geneva center has had increasing difficulty hiring and keeping staff. Smith said the problem is a limited labor pool, because the center is in a rural community, and several long-term employees are retiring.

The resulting shortages put more stress on remaining employees, forcing them to work overtime hours, which makes it harder in turn to keep them on the job. State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, the Health and Human Services Committee chairwoman, said she met an employee who worked four 16-hour days one week.

Geneva Mayor Eric Kamler disagreed that the community is too small and said that finding people to work what are good state jobs had not been a problem previously. He said the center draws employees from the region, not just Geneva.

Howard said a pair of decisions that reduced support for staff contributed to the problems. One was the elimination of cottage supervisors. Those supervisors were available to help other employees and could get to know the girls and the staff. Last year, however, those supervisor jobs were made into floating positions.

Smith, who became CEO at the end of February, said she did not know why the change had been made. She said she reinstituted the cottage supervisors two weeks ago at the suggestion of staff.

Officials also decided not to fill Geneva’s on-site staff trainer position after that person resigned about three years ago. Now, instead of two weeks’ worth of intensive training for new employees, plus continued training in meeting the needs of particular girls, newly hired employees get only on-the-job training from supervisors.

Heinisch said the girls ending up at Geneva contribute to the staffing problems. He said the increase in assaults has taken a toll on employees.

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Programs

One major victim of the staff shortages has been the programming that helped girls deal with their problems and change their lives, Smith said. The lack of mental health professionals, in particular, has limited the center’s ability to provide treatment, she said. HHS has tried to fill the gap with staff from other state institutions.

In addition, there has not always been enough staff to accompany girls on activities outside of the buildings or supervise recreational activities. Nor has there been staff at times to maintain the center’s long tradition of having girls volunteer in the community, such as selling popcorn at the movie theater or helping with a trap-shooting meet.

The girls end up bored and frustrated, which can lead to dangerous and destructive behavior, Howard said.

She and Heinisch also pointed to a culture change among Geneva staff. They said employees no longer build the kind of relationships with the girls that are key to helping youths deal with their problems.

“They’re just kids, they’ve had some crazy, terrible experiences in life,” Heinisch said.

Facilities

Maintaining the buildings at the Geneva campus has proven difficult, given the girls who end up there and the shortages of staff and programs. One of the four housing units, called cottages, has not been livable since the spring. Another was taken out of use early this month. The remaining two need repairs.

Jason Jackson, director of the State Department of Administrative Services, which handles maintenance at the center, said half of the LaFlesche building suffered damage when a girl broke a sprinkler head in October and the water did not drain properly. The department took over maintenance from HHS two years ago.

The rest of the building was closed after it was discovered that the sewer lines had not been installed correctly. He said repairs ground to a halt because contractors were busy repairing damage from the state’s major floods.

Girls were removed from the Sacajawea building on Aug. 11, after another sprinkler head was broken. On Aug. 10, the girls staged a protest against having to sleep in the building, which they said smelled of mold and mildew. The incident led to four girls being moved out of Geneva.

HHS officials removed all the girls the following week, after an unannounced visit by Howard and three other lawmakers brought conditions at the Geneva center to light. The girls were moved to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Kearney, the state institution for male juvenile offenders.

Jackson said the holes in the walls, broken sprinkler heads, exposed wires and other problems discovered by the lawmakers had not been fixed immediately because the agency wanted to make the repairs using more durable materials.

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State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha takes a photo of handprints on the wall of the Sacajawea Cottage at the Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Geneva, Nebraska.

Leadership

Smith said she reassigned Dan Scarborough, the longtime Geneva administrator, to a new position in June. She said she made the move after starting to look more closely at the center’s problems.

“There were some leadership issues we had concerns about,” she said. Those included problems with the programming and oversight of staff, she said.

Scarborough, who still works for HHS, did not return a message seeking comment. He was the administrator at the time the Geneva facility earned its 100% score with the national accrediting body.

Trevor Spiegel, HHS administrator for the Office of Juvenile Services, has taken on administration of the Geneva center, along with his other duties.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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