The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, no question, faces major challenges in managing the state’s juvenile offenders. But state senators sent the department the right message last week. They told it to slow down, hold off on its abruptly announced plan to close one of its juvenile facilities and take needed time to develop and present an overall plan.
HHS has worked for a year to stabilize a juvenile offender system under tremendous strain. Last summer, the state facility for female juvenile offenders fell into crisis. That center in Geneva was beset by a startling set of problems: major disrepair of buildings; severe staff shortages; inadequate rehabilitative programming. The state responded with emergency steps, transferring the girls to the state juvenile offender facility in Kearney, which until then had housed only boys. That of course raised concern about housing male and female offenders at the same facility.
Since then, HHS has established a center in Lincoln to handle offenders with the greatest emotional needs, and the state has spent $460,000 on major repairs to the Geneva center. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services developed a package of bills about youth rehabilitation, but five days before lawmakers were to convene, HHS announced that it planned major changes: It would close the Geneva center, transfer girls to a former Hastings Regional Center building and move a drug treatment center now at the building in Hastings to Lincoln.
Lawmakers pointed out shortcomings in that approach: The state had just made expensive repairs at Geneva. Relocating the drug treatment unit would disrupt successful programming. And HHS had acted unilaterally without consulting communities and stakeholders.
“The term partnership rings hollow,” State Sen. Steve Halloran of Hastings told colleagues during floor debate this week. HHS informed Hastings officials of the changes only at the last minute, he said.
Halloran was one of several lawmakers normally supportive of the Ricketts administration who voiced concern over the current situation.
Following floor debate, senators voted 32-3 to postpone any transfer or closing of the youth facilities until March 30, by which time the state is to submit a strategic plan.
A key aim must be strengthened rehabilitation programming — which, after all, was the central goal in 1997 when the state transferred control of the Geneva center from the state prison system to HHS. Important, too, is the assurance of adequate educational programming, which was one of the major failures at Geneva last year. The Legislature’s HHS Committee has developed sound ideas on that score, and the state Department of Education has stepped forward to help.
No one should minimize the challenges that HHS faces on this issue. But department must take a deep breath and take its time to work out a sound overall plan. And then build the needed buy-in for collaborative success.
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