Lancaster County's juvenile detention center can't hire additional staff to handle overcrowding spikes but can turn young people away if it's full, a divided Lancaster County Board decided Thursday.
The decision followed weeks of discussion about crowding issues at the Lancaster County Youth Services Center and Thursday turned into a heated debate about how the county and state work together.
The county runs the detention center, but state probation is responsible for placing teens once they’ve been through the juvenile court system. A majority of young people in the detention center are waiting placement in treatment or therapeutic settings.
The debate highlights the difficulty of finding such placements for young people — primarily with private providers outside Lincoln that can choose not to accept young people or can send them back to detention if they violate rules.
A juvenile justice steering committee made up of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, state human services workers and law enforcement officials asked to advise the County Board on the issue overwhelmingly said there’s a need for more group homes or therapeutic placements for young people.
“That’s where we’re at now,” said Deputy County Attorney Bruce Prenda. “The supply clearly cannot meet the demand.”
Committee members also said they would prefer expanding the number of beds in an existing shelter run by Cedars Youth Services rather than relying more heavily on using the detention center, but did not want the center to turn children away.
Tonya Peters, an assistant city attorney and legal counsel for the Lincoln Police Department, said the elephant in the room is the need for consistent funding so providers can keep enough beds available even if they’re not always full.
The County Board began debating the issue when Sheli Schindler, director of the detention center, asked for permission to hire five additional employees to staff an additional unit for high-risk boys. While the center has empty beds for low-risk boys and girls, the unit for high-risk boys has been full on various occasions over the past months.
If the board did not want to hire more staff, Schindler said she needs the authority to turn away teens when the units they’d be placed in are full. The contract between the state and county allows the detention center to do that, but so far that hasn’t happened, because juvenile justice officials are reluctant to turn young people away.
While the board voted unanimously not to hire additional staff — something members said goes against the overarching goal of reducing the number of juveniles in detention — it was split on whether to allow Schindler to enforce the contract and say no when the center is full. That measure narrowly passed: Commissioners Todd Wiltgen, Deb Schorr and Bill Avery voted to allow it; Roma Amundson and Jennifer Brinkman voted against it.
Schindler told the board she needs the ability to enforce the existing contract to maintain a safe environment.
But Brinkman said she didn’t want to “stick a finger in the eye” of state probation by authorizing the detention center to turn kids away, taking a defensive position instead of working collaboratively.
Schindler said the relationship has to go both ways, and said it wasn't her intent when she requested additional staff.
“I care about the kids. I’ve devoted 25 years of my life to those kids,” she said. “That view of my actions is, frankly, insulting.”
Wiltgen said allowing Schindler to enforce the contract isn’t intended to turn kids away, but to give detention center officials a management tool that will force the state to find placements more quickly.
“I’m saying ‘no’ because it’s a way to get to ‘yes,’” he said.
Lori Griggs, the chief probation officer in Lancaster County, said detaining juveniles in another city would cause problems for families and complicate local court proceedings.
“That’s a world we’ve never gone to before,” Griggs said. “I would hate to see that happening.”
The number of young people in detention has decreased dramatically over the past few years, she said, and delays in getting young people placed happen for a variety of reasons.
“We talk about this daily,” she said. “We are constantly working on it. We don’t just sit there.”
Although the detention center has room for 60 youth, staffing levels have decreased because fewer juveniles are put in detention. The average daily population at the center each month this year has ranged from 27 to 41. Schindler said she staffs for about 30, but total numbers might be down when individual units are full.
In deciding not to hire additional detention center staff, County Board members said they want to continue to work to find additional placements for young people, and asked that probation and county justice officials work more closely together.
“What we need to focus on is finding additional ways to find services,” Amundson said.