LINCOLN — A state institution for male juvenile offenders in Kearney will regularly house both boys and girls as part of a plan unveiled Monday by a top state official.

Dannette Smith, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency is creating a Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center system by revamping existing YRTCs at Kearney and Geneva and adding a third center in Lincoln.

The announcement came two months after Smith ordered all the girls moved out of the Geneva center and into the Kearney center. She issued the order after concluding that staff shortages, inadequate programming and deteriorating buildings at the Geneva campus had combined to create an urgent situation.

At the time, she said she would review both centers with an eye to better serving juvenile offenders sent to the centers. On Monday, she called the plan an “immediate and intermediate step” and said HHS officials will continue working on a longer-term proposal.

“Moving forward and establishing the YRTC system is the first step to reforming Nebraska’s youth services,” Smith said. “The three-pronged approach addresses immediate needs while ensuring the safety and well-being of the youth we serve. It also allows for long-range strategic planning done in collaboration with key stakeholders.”

But State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, the chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, raised concerns about the plan. She said she is especially worried about having teenage girls and boys at the same facility, even if they are supposed to be segregated.

Under the new plan, the Kearney facility will become the system’s hub. Youths will go there for their initial assessment. Most will stay there while they work through the Phase program, in which juveniles are scored daily on their behavior and get incentives based on their scores.

Those with especially severe behavioral and mental health problems will be transferred to a new center in Lincoln. Smith said the center will serve youths who act aggressively toward others, who harm themselves and who have not responded to other interventions.

Smith said the center will be housed in the same building as the Lancaster County Youth Services Center, a detention program, but the two programs will remain separate. The space has a capacity of 20 individual rooms, in two pods, with a common area and a separate secure outdoor recreational space.

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“The facility provides the appropriate physical structure and security required to serve high-acuity youth,” she said.

Youths at the Lincoln center will get intensive mental health and behavioral health services. Once stabilized, they will move back to the Kearney center to continue treatment or prepare for returning to their home communities, Smith said.

The Geneva center will reopen for three to six girls who have completed programming and are getting ready for life in the community. They will continue to use the Phase model, while adding an emphasis on life skills, increased responsibilities, community involvement and independent living.

Transition programs for boys will be provided at the Kearney center, as they are now.

Smith said she expects to be able to manage the changes within the existing YRTC budget. She also hopes to use existing staff, although some new employees will need to be hired for the Lincoln program and the Geneva staff will shrink. She said the changes will be phased in slowly, starting in January.

Juliet Summers, policy coordinator for Voices for Children in Nebraska, panned the plan, calling it “a poor investment of taxpayer resources in a model that is out of line with current best practices in the field and current knowledge of youth development.”

She faulted the plan in particular for continuing to rely on a youth incarceration model, potentially adding instability for youths through more frequent moves and using a programming model that has not been tested for efficacy.

“Opening another youth prison cannot solve the problems with our current youth prisons,” she said.

Howard questioned whether the state could house both boys and girls at the Kearney and Lincoln facilities, while protecting both and complying with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act. She noted, for example, that during a tour of the Kearney campus in early October, lawmakers observed some teen boys watching a couple of teen girls in the recreation area through a window.

She also raised concerns about getting contracts signed and employees hired and trained in the next couple of months.

Geneva Mayor Eric Kamler said the news was “very disappointing to hear” and “a major blow to our community.”

He said he is committed to keep working with Smith and HHS, as well as state lawmakers, and said Geneva would continue to welcome the YRTC as part of the community.

At a hearing this month, several Geneva-area residents talked about the unique relationship that the community has had with the Geneva girls. The girls have volunteered in the community, spent time with local families and participated in a special horse-training program.

The YRTCs serve children ages 14 through 18 who are sent there by the courts for breaking the law. The numbers at both centers have dropped as new state laws limited judges to sending only youths who have already been through less-restrictive treatment.

The Kearney center has housed 20 girls and about 90 boys for the last two months. The Geneva center has a capacity of 82 girls but housed only 28 girls at the time it was emptied.

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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