LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday upheld a juvenile court’s decision to put troubled teenagers in the state’s adult psychiatric hospital.

The ruling came in a pair of cases involving an Omaha-area youth, identified only as Giavonni P. He was placed in the Lincoln Regional Center in November 2018 after officials were unable to find a residential treatment facility to take him.

Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Christopher Kelly ordered Giavonni, then 16, to the state hospital, despite opposition from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and despite the lack of a youth treatment program there.

HHS, which operates the hospital, appealed the placement. The Supreme Court allowed the appeal to proceed even after Giavonni was moved out in May, saying a decision was in the public interest.

The court noted that HHS had presented a list of other juveniles who were sent to the regional center in the past 18 months. Giavonni was the second teenager to be sent there. The hospital had one juvenile patient last week during a visit by state lawmakers.

In the ruling, the high court rejected HHS arguments that placement at the hospital was not in Giavonni’s best interests and that the juvenile court did not have the authority to place someone there.

Attorneys for HHS said the jail-like conditions at the regional center were similar to those at one of Giavonni’s previous placements. Teens sent to the regional center have been placed in a building that houses adult sex offenders but are kept in a separate, secure unit, where, officials say, they have two to four employees with them at all times and have not been alone with the adult patients.

The Supreme Court said the hospital was a secure facility that could give Giavonni psychiatric treatment while keeping him and others safe.

“While we agree that an adult facility is not the optimal choice for a juvenile offender, given the lack of other options and Giavonni’s needs, placement at the LRC was in his best interests at the time of his placement,” the decision says.

The court also ruled that state law gives juvenile courts the power to “assent to and dissent from” HHS placement decisions. In addition, the law allows juvenile courts to order that a juvenile be placed in a “public hospital or institution for treatment or special care.”

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the ruling appeared to be fairly narrow because the juvenile court only sent Giavonni to the hospital until a better option was found. Lathrop said the court stepped in because Nebraska lacks the appropriate services for such youths.

“It seems to be a court-fashioned solution to not having a better option,” he said.

State attorneys are reviewing the decision, according to Suzanne Gage, a spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, whose office argued the case for HHS.

According to the court ruling, Giavonni first became involved with the child welfare system in April 2010. He was moved through a series of placements until October 2017, when he was charged with theft by unlawful taking and adjudicated as a juvenile offender. He was then sent to Capstone, a psychiatric residential facility in Detroit, where he stayed for a year.

The ruling said that, while at Capstone, Giavonni escaped, assaulted other residents and staff, destroyed property and refused to engage in therapy or take his medications. He spent about a month at the Douglas County juvenile detention center; he was also aggressive and did not see a therapist there.

The orders created an additional challenge for a state institution that has struggled with staff shortages, which led to more overtime costs, temporary staffing hours and employee turnover. Staffers have also suffered from a number of assaults and injuries.

The regional center houses adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses, as well as sex offenders with mental disorders. There are 238 patients on average.

Patients are sent there by local mental health boards or by court order. Courts order some criminal defendants to the hospital for evaluation and treatment before trial. Others at the hospital have committed crimes, including homicide, but have been found not responsible by reason of insanity.

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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