Juvenile treatment center program sought

A bill that seeks to create a pilot program in Lancaster County to provide mental health services, family outreach, education and family reunification services to juveniles was considered Feb. 15 by the Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Suzanne Geist
Sen. Suzanne Geist

LB473, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist, states legislative intent to appropriate $12 million in general funds for fiscal year 2023-24 to create the pilot program. The Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice would be required to develop eligibility criteria and would administer grants to an eligible county to operate a pilot program for the youth facility.

To be eligible, a county must contain a primary class city. Lincoln currently is the state’s only primary class city.

Under the bill, an eligible county would be required to use the grant funds for a 16-bed juvenile center run by the county or another contracted entity, with operations to begin on or before Jan. 1, 2024. Juveniles who reside in the county would have first priority for placement at the center.

On or before Oct. 1, 2026, the eligible county would be required to electronically submit a report to the Legislature regarding the pilot program, including outcomes for youth placed at the center, recommendations for modifying or expanding the program and any other matters deemed appropriate by the county.

Geist said the state currently spends between $9 million and $12 million to send troubled youth out of state to receive help. The pilot program’s purpose is to provide a home-like facility — not a detention center — for juveniles, she said, with the goal of protecting youth from harm and providing intensive services before they become more deeply involved in the criminal justice system.

“There’s currently a major gap in services for these juveniles in the juvenile justice system,” Geist said. “These youth are hurting [and] their parents are hurting because the system is not only letting down the youth, but it’s also hurting the parents and the families.”

Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson testified in support of the bill, saying sheriffs across the state are struggling with juvenile justice issues. Risky behavior, self-harm and “running” are some of the common issues sheriffs are seeing, he said, and many juveniles need intensive psychiatric care.

“We have to find safe places to put these kids where they cannot run and traumatize themselves more,” Hanson said.

Dan Martin, representing the Omaha Police Officers Association, also testified in support. Parents are frustrated when their child runs away over and over again, he said, and there needs to be a secure place for juveniles to receive help.

“We’re desperately in need of a facility that is secure … has education opportunities, family reunification resources [and] mental health therapy,” Martin said.

Speaking in a neutral capacity was Spike Eickholt, representing Voices for Children in Nebraska. He expressed concern that the center would operate similarly to a detention facility based on the repeated use of the word “secure” in the bill.

Eickholt also recommended that the bill include language to specify reporting requirements and that any recipient of grant funds be state accredited.

No one testified in opposition to LB473 and the committee took no immediate action on it.

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