LINCOLN — In a step one lawmaker called a “cynical circumvention” of state law, state officials are proceeding with plans to move a juvenile treatment program out of Hastings.
The Hastings Juvenile Chemical Dependency Program is slated to move to a state-owned facility in Lincoln next month. The program, which has been in operation since 1998, treats male juvenile offenders for substance use disorder.
The move is the first piece of a broader plan for state juvenile offender programs announced by the Department of Health and Human Services in July. HHS officials sent a formal notice about the move to Nebraska lawmakers last week, even as a new state law put other parts of that broader plan on hold.
State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings expressed frustration with department CEO Dannette Smith, saying the decision to proceed with the move ignores the Legislature’s concerns. Senators passed the law to slow down a process they said was hasty and done without involving interested parties.
“She may be satisfying the letter of the law, but she’s not satisfying the intent of the law,” Halloran said. “It’s a little bit of a cynical circumvention of the law.”
He is especially concerned about the 75 employees at the Hastings facility, who will be left in limbo once the boys in the program leave for Lincoln. The eight teenagers will be housed in a cottage on the Whitehall campus in northeast Lincoln.
An HHS spokeswoman said those employees could follow the program to Lincoln, work in other state facilities or move into other jobs with the department.
But Halloran said he expects that most will quit HHS.
“They’re discouraged and disappointed,” he said.
The state plan, as announced in July, called for putting the state’s female juvenile offenders on the Hastings Regional Center campus once the boys substance abuse program moved out. The girls were to live in new buildings that have been constructed for the chemical dependency program but have not yet been put to use.
The girls were to be moved from the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Kearney, which would return to being boys-only, and in Geneva, which would close.
The two centers have been in turmoil for the past year after staff shortages, inadequate programming and deteriorating buildings combined to create a crisis at the girls facility in Geneva. In August 2019, HHS officials moved the girls out for safety and put them at the formerly male-only center in Kearney.
Last fall, state officials developed a plan to open a new center in Lincoln for male and female offenders with especially severe behavioral and mental health problems, while reopening the Geneva center on a small scale to serve girls who are transitioning back into the community.
The most recent plan was announced shortly before state lawmakers reconvened to finish the 2020 legislative session. During the session, they passed a legislative package aimed at addressing problems at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers.
One part of the package, Legislative Bill 1140, barred HHS from establishing or moving one of the centers until March 30, 2021, the deadline for the department to complete a five-year operations plan for the centers. The bill required the plan to put boys and girls on different campuses.
The package also created a new Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center Special Oversight Committee. Sen. John Arch of La Vista, who chairs the committee, said he expects that lawmakers will talk with HHS officials about the plans for the Hastings substance abuse program, along with the broader plans. The teenage boys treated in that program come from the Kearney center.
“I have questions about the move,” he said. “We’ll be posing some of those questions. We just want to see what’s the best program we can provide to these youth.”