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Douglas County resource center would focus on keeping youth out of justice system

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The City of Omaha will add about 180 residents in mid July with the approval of an annexation package last week.

At-risk youths and their families may soon be able to access an array of community services in one centralized place in Douglas County.

Officials with the county’s juvenile justice services, the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties and three Omaha school districts are working together to open The Bridge Family Resource Center, which will act as a hub to connect families to existing community-based services.

The center, now an official nonprofit, has been in the works since 2020. Once open, it will focus on prevention and early intervention to help keep youths out of the juvenile justice system.

Current plans call for the center to co-exist with the Learning Community’s planned third location in west Omaha and serve the Westside, Millard and Ralston school districts. All three recently made financial contributions to help get The Bridge off the ground.

Learning Community CEO Bradley Ekwerekwu said the facility is still in its planning stage, but is proposed to be at 98th and M Streets and could open as soon as 2023. Ekwerekwu said the Learning Community is in negotiations with local architects to get cost proposals for the facility.

“It’s part of our strategic plan to start a third center to get the Millard, Ralston and Westside areas,” Ekwerekwu said. “This will be a one-stop shop. We’re trying to find a space and a welcoming environment for families who might be at their lowest of low.”

Douglas County already has a juvenile assessment center that diverts youths from the criminal justice system after a citation or charge, but there is a lack of help in the metro area for at-risk children who haven’t yet committed a crime, according to a Douglas County juvenile justice report.

Vulnerable youths include those with school attendance issues, those with mental or behavioral problems and those who run away, said Kim Hawekotte, deputy county administrator for juvenile justice. Hawekotte was hired in 2020, and a project like The Bridge is part of her work to coordinate juvenile reform efforts.

“Whether you call it truancy or school absenteeism, there is a very, very strong correlation between (that and) later involvement in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “If you can really build up that prevention and early intervention, then you can keep them engaged in school and getting their high school diploma.”

Hawekotte said that instead of delivering services, The Bridge will work on a “hub and spoke” model, serving as a single point of entry for pairing students and families with existing services. In addition to the central office in west Omaha, the nonprofit intends to open locations in North and South Omaha.

Through an assessment process by staff, people will be able to choose from among three paths of care: a general services path, a center services path and a family coaching path.

In the general path, people will be able to access services like referrals to agencies such as housing assistance or legal aid, non-cash assistance and financial emergency assistance.

The center services path offers things like parenting education programs, job training, tutoring, mental health counseling and youth activities. In the family coaching path, families will work with a coach using assessments to track progress toward their own goals while using coordinated care from the other paths.

Hawekotte said staff at The Bridge’s central office in west Omaha will travel to different parts of the metro area on various days of the week to serve more communities.

“So it (The Bridge) might be affiliated with churches, it might be with a school, it might be with another nonprofit or it might be with the learning community in that area,” she said.

Making resources and services more accessible is one of the main reasons education leaders and county officials wanted to create a family resource center in Omaha.

The county used private funds for OMNI Institute, a Denver consulting firm, to conduct an assessment of services in Douglas County. The report was finished in 2021 and provided data on the county’s gaps and needs around family resources. It also provided information on how metro communities could benefit from a center.

According to the report, Douglas County has two main barriers that are disrupting care and limiting access to services needed for youths and families: racial and ethnic disparities in formal intervention systems, and limitations regarding capacity and collaboration.

“Like other cities and communities across America, Omaha struggles with issues of systemic racism that prevent Black and brown families and neighborhoods from thriving,” the report’s authors wrote. “As one interviewee put it, families of color are often underserved by strengths-based programs and overserved by punitive systems.”

Hawekotte said that through talking with local families, county officials learned a center would need to be community-based to succeed.

“Families have to feel ownership in it and we feel very strongly about that,” she said. “So after talking with families, they were very, very clear to us that when it comes to the government, it’s ‘you’re taking my kids away, you’re putting them in detention.’ And that’s not prevention work.”

The OMNI Institute found that Douglas County has a capacity and collaboration barrier. Some organizations are maxed out while others are not used cohesively among all school districts.

The institute said one interviewee explained there’s a lot of planned collaboration once a youth is involved in the justice system for diversion, but a lack of early intervention to help families before they get to that point.

“The result is a patchwork of siloed organizations doing their best to meet family needs, but there is no coordinating hub for the spokes of this wheel,” the report said. “There are organizations that provide resource navigation and referrals, but there is no central coordination point where any and all families can go to prevent formal system involvement.”

The institute said in its report that family resource centers, which can be found around the U.S., can help bring community organizations together.

The Bridge is estimating it will need $700,000 a year to operate and $800,000 for setting up the organization, according to a memorandum of understanding the Westside school board approved on June 13.

Douglas County has a donor commitment of $1 million a year for five years, and the organization will still seek grants from the Nebraska Department of Education and other government agencies.

The agreement states that after The Bridge has a proven concept, it will seek private donors and foundations for operating expenses. For now, the Westside school board approved a one-time payment of $125,000 to support the center. The money will come from the district’s general fund.

Ralston’s school board also approved an agreement with The Bridge on May 23 and committed $125,000. Mark Adler, Ralston’s superintendent, said the funds will be coming from the district’s allocation of federal COVID-19 money.

“We feel like that is an important use of that money and it will speak to helping our kids and families hopefully move out of where we have been with COVID,” Adler said. “This is going to be right in our district, a couple of blocks from one of our elementary schools, and that’s pretty exciting for us.”

Adler said he is especially looking forward to The Bridge’s focus of providing opportunities and activities for students centered on the arts. The organization has already indicated that it will provide after-school programming focused on performing arts.

Adler said even though he doesn’t know the full scope of the programming The Bridge will offer for students, he thinks the center will be “one of a kind” for Omaha because of how it will make services more accessible for students.

“Any way we can get additional resources to help with what we are already doing is super powerful,” he said. “With more than 60% of our students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, there is a need out there for families, and that’s why I think this is a great opportunity.”

Millard’s school board approved its agreement on June 6. The district is committing $500,000 from federal COVID relief money, said Jim Sutfin, the district’s former superintendent. While he retired on June 30, he was asked to be a part of The Bridge’s board of directors this year and will continue with that work, he said.

One of the organization’s first steps, Sutfin said, will be finding The Bridge’s executive director, who will develop the organization’s vision and manage programs.

“There are amazingly wonderful nonprofits that are in our community, and this will help them provide services to all three districts, not just one, and that’s the beauty of it,” Sutfin said. “This type of collaboration will have a generational impact on kids.”

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