Juvenile facility oversight sought

A measure that would establish legislative oversight of the state’s residential juvenile facilities was considered Feb. 4 by the Executive Board.

Sen. Sara Howard
Sen. Sara Howard

LR298, sponsored by Omaha Sen. Sara Howard, would create the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center Special Oversight Committee of the Legislature. Howard said the proposal is in response to deteriorating conditions and issues that occurred at the YRTC in Geneva during the summer of 2019, including a lack of treatment and programming.

“When children enter the juvenile justice system the goal is to provide them with treatment and rehabilitation to address the issues that have led to their behavior and to help set them on the right course for their future,” she said.

An oversight body that includes members of the standing legislative committees involved in the various aspects of YRTC functioning would consolidate the Legislature’s efforts to ensure that conditions at the facilities improve, Howard said.

The nine-member committee would include:
• three members of the Health and Human Services and Judiciary committees;
• one member of the Appropriations and Education committees; and
• one at-large member of the Legislature.

The oversight committee would be required to issue a report with any findings and recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 15, 2020.

Testifying in support of the measure was Julie Rogers, state ombudsman and former inspector general of Nebraska child welfare. She said that all 35 of the girls who resided at the Geneva YRTC had been diagnosed with behavioral or mental health disorders—or both—and that all but two had documented histories of abuse or neglect.

“The YRTC issue is a complex one,” Rogers said. “As decisions are made for these youth … they cut across every branch of Nebraska state government.”

Dannette Smith, CEO of the state Department of Health and Human Services, testified in opposition to the proposal, calling it “duplicative” and “unnecessary.” She said the goal of improving the YRTCs can be achieved without an oversight committee, which she said could inhibit the department’s ability to act quickly when necessary.

“Changes are needed within the YRTC system,” Smith said. “We are making those changes.”

The committee took no immediate action on the measure.

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