Oversight of Nebraska state government is vital for serving the public interest. Auditors check for sound financial management. Inspectors general and other monitoring entities look to see if agencies are carrying out their duties responsibly.
A new report from State Ombudsman Julie Rogers explains the multiple failures that led to a troubling crisis in the summer of 2019 at the state-run center in Geneva for female youth offenders. The disturbing circumstances spurred evacuation of the residents to the state-run center for male youth offenders in Kearney.
The HHS-run juvenile offender facilities serve youngsters ages 14-18 who are sent there by the courts for breaking the law.
The State Department of Health and Human Services has since taken steps to address the problems, but the report provides a warning to HHS and all state agencies about the dangers of inattention to key responsibilities. The Legislature is rightly requiring HHS to present a strategic plan by March on how the department will address concerns for the long term.
Some of the failures by HHS at the Geneva facility were already known, but Rogers’ report pulled together the information in a comprehensive manner.
“Our investigation,” Rogers says, “made it clear that this was not a crisis that arose as the result of any one person or single incident, but rather resulted from failures in the systems and leadership of the state. These failures had a profound effect on the youth the (center was) meant to serve.”
Rogers’ report describes how key positions at the facility were left vacant or not staffed adequately between 2015 and August 2019. These positions included the center administrator, facility operating officer, clinical psychologist and program director and the person in charge of training. HHS had managers assigned to multiple facilities with different missions. The Geneva facility was understaffed and training was often inadequate. There were concerns about staff safety. Mandatory overtime became a major burden on staff.
In the wake of the 2019 crisis, 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. But HHS has run into opposition from the Legislature over the department’s plans to close the Geneva facility, 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 to the shortcomings of 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. Lawmakers have barred the transfer of the girls and required the department to file a strategic plan by March 30.
No one dismisses the magnitude of the challenge HHS faces in meeting the needs of residents, but the department must follow the directive to release a strategic plan by the deadline. It’s encouraging that the State Department of Education has stepped up to help ensure that the girls receive appropriate educational support.