The Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony for a second day on a batch of bills meant to be senators' ideas on how to best deal with the state's rehabilitation and treatment centers for youth.
Sen. Tom Brandt of Plymouth brought a bill (LB1150), one with 23 co-sponsors, that would require that only boys are committed to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center at Kearney and girls are sent back to the YRTC at Geneva. That change would take place by July 1, 2021.
Brandt said a crisis at the Geneva center this summer prompted the move of girls to Kearney. The emergency move grew out of staffing problems because of poor working conditions and mandatory overtime that made it difficult to fill positions for open jobs, he said.
A lack of programming caused confusion for both the girls and the staff, he said. And a change in maintenance staff left areas of the campus poorly maintained and then damaged by a small group of youth.
In rethinking how to operate the system, the Department of Health and Human Services decided to eventually send only two to six girls back to Geneva to transition back to their communities. And many of the staffing positions were eliminated.
To date, no girls have returned to Geneva.
Having both girls and boys committed to the YRTC in Kearney has resulted in behavior problems for both groups, Brandt said.
"Having a single-sex facility with just girls (in Geneva) is a lot better dynamic than having those girls in with the boys, because then the hormones are kicking in," Brandt said. "There's a lot of things that happen when you get girls and boys in close proximity with each other."
The girls and boys at Kearney are not housed together, but are on the same campus. When they came in August, the girls were moving into housing with individual rooms that formerly served as separate quarters for at-risk boys. Now, those boys are in the general population.
The girls now have communal showers rather than individual showers they had at Geneva.
The teachers union sent a letter to senators recommending sending the girls back to Geneva as soon as possible. They said communication between management and staff has deteriorated, and there aren't enough trained staff.
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Brandt said the girls have complained they feel like second-class citizens at Kearney.
A fiscal note on the bill from the department says a new structure would have to be built in Geneva to return them there and would have to accommodate 40 girls at a cost of $12 million.
The department opposed the bill, saying it has transitioned to a multi-campus system that allows for programming for specific populations of kids for programming, intensive behavioral interventions and physical structure for safety and security.
The staffing difficulties, especially for security and clinical staff, preclude the department from offering a full range of treatment and programming at Geneva, wrote CEO Dannette Smith, but it can support a small reentry program for young women, with 13 staff, before they return to their homes.
HHS also has opened a Medicaid support office on the campus and has been successful in recruiting and hiring 25 people for those positions, Smith said in her letter.
Kyle Svec, Geneva city administrator, said at the hearing the closure of the YRTC has rocked his town.
"I have seen first hand the negative impact it has had on people's lives in Geneva that relied on the great jobs this campus provided," he said.
The small town's unique environment had provided young girls at the YRTC the opportunity to build good relationships and to get their lives headed back in the right direction, he said.
Juliet Summers, policy coordinator for Voices for Children in Nebraska, said the organization remains unconvinced that the current physical footprint of the two rehabilitation and treatment centers in this decade is necessarily the right one for the youth that are committed there.
"We do not want to cut off avenues for revisioning how and where young people may best have their treatment needs met," she said.
Every year, admissions to these facilities have gone down, requiring less and less physical space, but the level of treatment interventions for the youth has risen, requiring more licensed and trained staff, she said.
In fiscal year 2018-19, 152 youths were admitted to the two facilities, 109 to Kearney and 43 to Geneva. The cost to run them was $19,753,256 for that year.
There were different challenges and missions that the two centers were built to meet in the 1800s, she said. Now, so much of the treatment revolves around maintaining strong connections to communities and families.
This is a moment to take a thoughtful look at where the money should be going to support the youth, she said. For $20 million, it is worth considering all options, including where the youths are coming from: Lincoln, Omaha, Grand Island, Scottsbluff and North Platte.