Legislative YRTC oversight bill advances

A bill that would provide greater legislative oversight for the state’s youth rehabilitation centers was broadened and advanced from general file March 10.

The Office of Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare is housed within the Office of Public Counsel, a division of the Legislature. Currently, the office investigates allegations of misconduct by employees of the state Department of Health and Human Services, the juvenile services division, contractors and juvenile detention facilities.

LB1144, introduced by the Health and Human Services Committee, would “create critical legislative oversight” of the YRTCs, according to committee chairperson, Omaha Sen. Sara Howard.

She said the level of disrepair and lack of programming that senators discovered last year at YRTC Geneva were “shocking” and that the Legislature needs additional mechanisms to ensure that the situation is not repeated.

LB1144 would require the juvenile services division to report to the inspector general any of the following instances that occur at a YRTC:
• assault;
• escape;
• attempted suicide;
• self-harm by a juvenile;
• property damage;
• use of mechanical restraints;
• a significant medical event for a juvenile; or
• an internally substantiated violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

In addition, the department would be required to notify the inspector general of any leadership changes within the juvenile services division or the YRTCs. The inspector general would be required to conduct an annual review and physical inspection of six state institutions and report to the Legislature on their condition, staffing and any systemic issues identified.

LB1144 also would require the department to submit quarterly reports of the number of grievances filed at each YRTC, to include a categorization of the issues related to each grievance, the process for addressing grievances and any actions or changes made as a result.

An Executive Board amendment, adopted 42-0, incorporated provisions of LR298, sponsored by Howard. The provisions would create the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center Special Oversight Committee of the Legislature.

The eleven-member committee would include:
• three members of the Health and Human Services and Judiciary committees;
• two members each from the Appropriations and Education committees;
• one member from each legislative district in which a YRTC is located; 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, and would terminate on Dec. 31, 2020.

Howard said the new committee would bring more senators into the conversation regarding the YRTCs going forward and provide a broader perspective.

“Recognizing our own limitations, our own expertise, we’ve done what we can on the HHS side, but we really do need some help from some of our colleagues with other areas of expertise,” she said.

Kearney Sen. John Lowe supported the amendment, noting the importance of including on the oversight committee senators from legislative districts that include a YRTC.

“That means a lot to us—that we have a voice in what happens in our districts,” Lowe said.

The committee amendment also incorporates the provisions of Howard’s LB1085, which would make references to the Office of the Public Counsel in several sections of state law gender neutral.

Following adoption of the committee amendment, senators voted 43-0 to advance LB1144 to select file.

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