In 1997, the Nebraska state government transferred operation of its facility for juvenile female offenders in Geneva from the Department of Correctional Services. The goal: to make the facility less prison-like and more rehabilitation-focused. The Department of Health and Human Services would provide a new, positive vision, with programming to stabilize conditions and set vulnerable girls on a new path.

But more than two decades later, the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva has not just fallen short of that vision. It’s fallen into outright crisis.

The facility is short-staffed, and several of its buildings suffer from major deterioration. In one building, the mechanism that is supposed to unlock all doors in case of fire is broken, raising concern over the girls’ safety.

Programming has declined to the point that state senators visiting last week were told many of the girls spent most of their time sitting around with no activities and no time outdoors. In contradiction of the Legislature’s push to reduce reliance on solitary confinement for juveniles, the lawmakers found considerable resort to such confinement at Geneva. Two of the confinement rooms had no working lights.

Julie Rogers, the state inspector general for child welfare, noted last year that the Geneva facility relied heavily on such restrictive housing for youths who attempt suicide or self-harm. The facility was receiving a large number of youths with “extremely serious histories of trauma and mental illness,” Rogers reported.

The state’s Geneva facility, in short, has distressingly reverted to a prison environment in many ways, to the neglect of its central rehabilitative mission.

In an Aug. 10 disturbance, girls damaged fire sprinklers in their cottage, and one employee was hurt. HHS officials decided the Geneva facility had reached a crisis point, and the department has transferred all girls from Geneva to the state’s facility in Kearney for male juvenile offenders, keeping the girls in a separate building.

Various organizations and leaders have important obligations:

» HHS. Dannette Smith, who began work as CEO of HHS in February, has provided appropriate transparency and cooperation in the face of this crisis, acknowledging the major problems at Geneva. HHS has shifted extra staff from other facilities to work with the girls at Kearney. Challenging work remains ahead for HHS if the Geneva facility is to meet needed standards, including adequate staffing, comprehensive programming and sound operational procedures.

» Department of Administrative Services. The department has wide-ranging duties across the breadth of state government, but it’s imperative that the agency make renovation of the Geneva facilities a priority.

» Legislature. The HHS Committee, under its chairwoman, State Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, will need to develop an oversight strategy for the Geneva facility. The Appropriations Committee should discuss whether funding is adequate for the facility’s building needs. Longtime Ombudsman Marshall Lux, an employee of the Legislature, has retired, and the Executive Board should nominate a successor to the full Legislature.

» Inspectors/auditors. Why previous inspections failed to detect deficiencies at the Geneva facility remains a bafflement. The center received approval last year by an accreditation team. A separate federal audit, completed in October, said the facility met all needed standards. All organizations involved in such inspections should review their procedures, and HHS should look to see what factors may have led to a swift decline.

The webpage for the Geneva facility says its goal is to provide “a safe, secure and nurturing environment” and specialized programming that “responds to each youth’s unique needs.” It’s vital that all connected organizations fulfill their obligations so the center can move past this crisis and fulfill its rehabilitative mission for these girls.

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