GENEVA, Neb. — Araceli Morales had walked well down a path to perdition by the time a juvenile judge sent her to Nebraska's home for delinquent girls.
By 16, she had dropped out of her school in Lexington, joined a gang, sold drugs, broken into houses and beaten up other kids — so she could spend nights high and drunk. She was in and out of foster care and a group home.
In late 1999, when Morales got to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center on the north side of Geneva, she was determined to make her stay little more than a spin of the turnstile.
She resisted staff members who tried to crack her tough-girl exterior. She ignored school assignments. She snarled when other girls reached out. And, nine months in, she realized her efforts had failed miserably.
“They never gave up on me,” she said of the center's staff members. “The harder I pushed to get them away from me, the harder they hung on to me. The harder they tried.”
Now, 12 years later, she is a married mother of two, employed and living in Shickley, Neb., a farm community about 15 miles from Geneva. Except for a couple of traffic infractions, she's had no brushes with the law. And she thinks a legislative proposal to close the Geneva center for girls and a similar one in Kearney for troubled boys would be a terrible mistake.
“To make teenagers grateful for their liberty, sometimes you've got to take their liberty away from them,” Morales said.
But those who support closing the centers say Nebraska relies far too heavily on a lock-'em-up approach when it comes to juvenile offenders. Based on a national study released last week, Nebraska has the third-highest juvenile incarceration rate among all states.
The study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation also highlighted the trend in other states to shutter juvenile facilities and replace them with community-based programs that treat rather than punish troubled kids.
Bart Lubow, a juvenile justice expert with the Baltimore-based foundation, said the evidence overwhelmingly tips the scale in favor of community treatment over confinement.
“They're not rehabilitative,” he said of detention centers. “They're ridiculously expensive, and most of the kids in them pose relatively low public safety risks.
“The record is very, very clear that large-scale youth corrections facilities do a very poor job at reducing recidivism, and they do a very poor job when it comes to educating or healing kids that come from very troubled backgrounds.”
Omaha Sens. Brad Ashford and Bob Krist are at the center of the juvenile justice reform effort, which has the support of other key senators. In general, Gov. Dave Heineman endorses the effort to improve the juvenile system, his spokeswoman said.
The senators want Nebraska to develop a “continuum of care” that intervenes with troubled kids at a younger age, works with parents, addresses mental health and behavioral issues and keeps most juvenile offenders in their communities — ideally, in their homes. They want to reserve confinement for the smaller percentage of young people who've committed violent offenses and represent a danger to themselves or the public.
Ashford's Legislative Bill 561 proposes closing the Kearney and Geneva centers. The bill, which also would create a new Office of Juvenile Assistance to oversee a revamped system, will be discussed Thursday at a public hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
Closing the centers, which cost nearly $19 million annually to operate, would free up funding for some of the community-based treatment programs the state needs to move toward, Ashford said.
While he stressed that closing the centers isn't a foregone conclusion, he said they cannot continue to operate as is.
He and the other reform-minded senators are troubled by spikes in assaults at Kearney in recent years, peaking at 472 youth-on-youth assaults and 96 youth-on-staff assaults in 2011, although they declined in 2012.
The assaults are blamed in a large part on an increase in prior gang involvement among boys sent to the center. A contributing problem: barracks-style living and sleeping quarters, which will have to be remodeled if the Kearney buildings are to play a role in an overhauled system, Ashford said.
The sleeping rooms at the Geneva center are mostly single-occupancy, although some girls have to share rooms when the population exceeds capacity.
Reform-minded senators also want to substantially reduce the number of kids sent to the centers, perhaps by half. Mixing violent and nonviolent kids can have devastating consequences when the kids return home.
“They go in as offenders to some degree and they come out as gang members,” Ashford said. “That is exactly what's happening. Not only is it destroying kids, it's putting the public at great risk.”
It's not hard to find people in Kearney and Geneva who disagree.
Closures would be felt economically in both communities, but would hurt more in Geneva, a town of 2,200 people about 125 miles southwest of Omaha. The 100 employees collectively earn nearly $4 million annually, which flows and multiplies throughout the local economy.
But many of those who support the center said they are less concerned about the economic impact than what will happen to the girls and the staff members who care about them. They expressed skepticism that the state will produce better outcomes by closing the centers.
“I totally believe in the program out there. I've seen girls' lives change,” said Sharon Kennel of Geneva, who has served as a volunteer on a community advisory board for more than three decades.
Teens sent to Geneva and Kearney are wards of the state, and most have stood multiple times before juvenile judges. Many have been abused and neglected at home, have failed at school and struggle with substance abuse. Perhaps as many as eight out of 10 have an untreated mental diagnosis.
The centers once operated more like prisons, where unruly or violent kids were restrained and solitary confinement was used as punishment. But the center directors say they have dramatically reduced their use of restraints by using a “verbal de-escalation” technique. And isolation no longer is used as a punishment, but instead as a “timeout” when the physical safety of residents or staff members is at risk.
The Geneva center uses some of the same treatment approaches held up as examples by other states, said Daniel Scarborough, the facility administrator. The center employs mental health professionals, counselors and teachers to help girls learn how to function successfully.
About 10 years ago, the center also developed its own gender-specific programs, including one that teaches teen mothers how to care for their infants with overnight stays in a staff-supervised apartment. The center also is accredited for following national best practices for juvenile facilities, and it fares well in national rankings, Scarborough said.
He also mentioned the center's 9 percent recidivism rate (it is 27 percent at Kearney).
Scarborough credited the center's success to an outcome-based approach that requires girls to earn parole or release by meeting behavior benchmarks. The average stay is six months.
“We've been pretty resilient about making kids earn their way out of here,” Scarborough said.
Although the center is a locked facility, it isn't fenced, so some girls do walk away. As the corn rises each summer, so do the runaway numbers, Geneva residents say.
But girls have another option to leave the center, albeit temporarily. Those wanting to do community service can volunteer at the local movie theater, senior center and nursing home. Others who meet behavior goals can earn shopping or restaurant outings with visiting relatives.
Geneva residents also volunteer to spend time with the girls who don't have family to visit.
Over the years, Sharon and John Jacobs have brought about 25 girls from the center into their lives, having them over for Christmas and Thanksgiving or just to play cards or share a meal with their family. In nearly all cases, the girls are well mannered and appreciate the invitations, the couple say.
“I just think it would be a big mistake to close it and not have this place for these girls to go,” Sharon Jacobs said.
Supporters of the Geneva center are particularly proud of the school, which has helped many girls get their diplomas or GED certificates over the years. Richard Wehland, who worked at the center for more than 40 years as a teacher and principal before his retirement last year, said it wasn't uncommon for girls to be the first in their families to complete high school.
He challenged those who argue the centers are ineffective. “Based on what? Where's the data? What are you using to make that sweeping statement?”
Those who advocate a different approach start by challenging the center's 9 percent recidivism rate. Although recidivism is measured in different ways, the center defines it as a teen who returns to Geneva within a year of her release.
Research by the Casey Foundation in 2011 looked at similar detention centers in other states and found that within three years of their releases, 75 percent of youths had been arrested again and, in some places, as many as 72 percent had been convicted of another crime. Nebraska doesn't track the records of kids released from the centers beyond one year.
Those advocating a new approach also point to the Geneva center's $7.4 million annual budget. And they mention the $90,000 cost to treat one girl for one year.
Some of the girls need that level of treatment, but many will do better if they can receive counseling, mentoring, tutoring, criminal diversion, mental health therapy and other help while living in their homes, center opponents say.
For a couple of years, state agencies have used a pilot project to manage juvenile offenders with community-based services in Omaha, which has led to better outcomes, said Corey Steel, juvenile justice specialist for the Office of Probation Administration. A cost analysis on the pilot project is under way, but Steel said providing in-home services to kids costs “substantially less” than sending them to Kearney or Geneva.
Even young people who need out-of-home placement do better in unlocked facilities that more closely resemble a summer camp than a correctional institution, said Sarah Forrest, juvenile justice policy coordinator with Voices for Children in Nebraska.
The types of program that provide community care need to be built up and expanded in Nebraska, particularly in rural areas, so more kids can be served, Forrest said. Currently, most of the state's juvenile funding money goes to the centers, which reached fewer than 600 kids last year.
“Almost all of our resources are spent on the deep end of incarceration,” she said. “It's harmful to kids, it's expensive and we can do better.”
Public hearing on the major juvenile justice reform measure
Legislative Bill 561
When: 1:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Judiciary Committee, Room 1113, Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln
Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers
|Budget||$7.4 million||$11.5 million|
|Staffing||101 positions (full-time equivalent)||154 positions (full-time equivalent)|
|Average employee tenure||11 years||10 years|
|Annual payroll||$3.8 million||$5.8 million|
|Average annual salary||$34400||$35300|
|Capacity||88 girls||172 boys|
|Average daily census||81 girls||160 boys|
|Average length of stay||6½ months||5 months|
|Daily cost per resident||$244||$182|
|Annual cost per resident||$90000||$66400|
|Percentage who return within year||9%||27%|
|2012 assaults||10 youth-on-youth; 51 youth-on-staff||138 youth-on-youth; 48 youth-on-staff|
|Top five offenses leading to placement||assault, theft, shoplifting, disturbing the peace, criminal mischief||assault, theft, drug possession, burglary, criminal mischief|
|Admissions by race||43% white; 18% black; 17% Hispanic; 6% Native American; 16% other||48% white; 24% black; 21% Hispanic; 6% Native American; 1% Asian|
|Top home counties||31% Lancaster (Lincoln); 28% Douglas (Omaha); 4.3% Hall (Grand Island); 4.3% Dakota (South Sioux City); 3.6% Buffalo (Kearney); 3.6% Madison (Norfolk)||23% Lancaster (Lincoln); 23% Douglas (Omaha); 7% Hall (Grand Island); 4% Scotts Bluff (Scottsbluff); 3.8% Dakota (South Sioux City) and Madison (Norfolk)|
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