10_1_19 YRTC fence, north side (copy)

The 10-foot chain-link fence around the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center at Kearney.

Operating Nebraska’s state facilities for juvenile offenders is a difficult endeavor, no question. Many of the youths display challenging behavior, and some resort to violence. Staff turnover creates complications in providing programs and security. The state’s low unemployment rate makes it difficult to fill all vacancies.

The bottom line, though, is that the state has an obligation to operate the facilities at the needed professional standard. Both facilities — the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva for girls, and the counterpart center in Kearney for boys — currently face challenges.

In Geneva, the state ordered the removal of all female residents in August after the facility fell into crisis in the wake of staff shortages, inadequate rehabilitative programming and buildings in severe disrepair. Julie Rogers, the state inspector general for child welfare, noted last year that the Geneva facility relied heavily on solitary confinement for youths who attempt suicide or self-harm, even though the Legislature has made clear it wants reduced use of such practice for Nebraska youths. The Geneva facility, Rogers reported, was receiving a large number of youths with “extremely serious histories of trauma and mental illness.”

The state Department of Health and Human Services moved the girls to the facility in Kearney for male juvenile offenders, keeping the girls in a separate building. HHS, which operates the juvenile facilities in Geneva and Kearney, shifted extra staff from other facilities to work with the girls at Kearney.

State senators visiting the Geneva site last week found that the state Department of Administrative Services has made considerable repairs to the buildings. HHS so far has left it unclear whether it intends to resume operations at the Geneva center and, if so, what its strategy will be. It’s understandable that HHS wants to proceed responsibly. But the department mustn’t delay its decisions for too long. A central goal must be to restore the center’s rehabilitative mission. Rehabilitation, after all, is why the state transferred control of the center to HHS from the state prison system in 1997.

Meanwhile, state officials continue to debate the best approach so the Kearney facility for male juvenile offenders can fulfill its rehabilitative services while also providing adequate security. In public meetings with Nebraska officials, Kearney residents have repeatedly made clear that they expect the state to prevent juvenile offenders from walking off the premises. It’s an appropriate demand the state has an obligation to meet.

Nebraska officials need to provide clear and complete answers on how they intend to meet the requirements, challenging as they are, at both of these juvenile offender facilities.

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