10/11 NOW Investigation: What’s changed since Geneva YRTC closed
LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - There were holes in the walls, debris littering the floors, water damage and plastic cots sitting on hard ground.
Those were the conditions at the Geneva Youth Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in August 2019 that prompted the facility to close and an investigation to open.
“It was a perfect storm of a lot of issues,” Jennifer Carter, ombudsman for the Juvenile Justice System said.
After the shutdown, about 30 girls who were at Geneva were moved to the male YRTC in Kearney before the facility permanently moved to a repurposed building in Hastings.
10/11 NOW interviewed some of DHHS and the YRTC system’s top administrators to see how it’s going since the crisis in Geneva.
Juvenile Services Administrator, Mark LaBouchardiere, said he didn’t want to “jinx it” but things are going very well at the Hastings YRTC.
“There have been a few issues, a couple of assaults’ here and there, kids acting out,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s going even better than expected.
Facility administrator Camella Jacobe echoed this, saying those hiccups just inform them about what they can do better.
“It teaches us where we’re vulnerable and what we need to change,” Jacobe said. “So over the last year we’ve been able to adapt to some of those things we needed to change, reinforce some buildings that may have needed it to better serve the clientele we serve.”
But to get to this point of success, a lot of work had to be done over the last three years. First, to figure out what happened to allow conditions at the Geneva YRTC to get so bad.
“It was a melting pot of issues that occurred,” LaBouchardiere said.
Carter said the problem started with staffing issues, particularly for key administrators and clinicians. She said this resulted in people doing multiple jobs and working a lot of overtime. This lead to more problems.
“Programming started to break down, education started to break down and you had a lot of girls with significant trauma with nothing to do,” Carter said.
She said the girls then started damaging the facilities. The ombudsman’s investigation into the conditions at Geneva recorded 12 sprinkler breaks and more damage that DHHS did attempt to repair.
“It is indisputable girls were causing the damage in the cottage,” the report said. “But the failure to address the girls’ behavior highlights the failure of the leadership at DHHS to fulfill their statutory mandate to provide treatment and programming to the youth it serves or at the very least to occupy the youth in a productive and positive way.”
Laura Opfer, policy analyst for the Nebraska Children’s Commission said the conditions were a wake-up call.
“That we need to make changes and work together on those changes for the YRTCs,” she said.
That’s what happened.
The ombundsman report made six recommendations including centralizing leadership, addressing staffing, implementing electronic record keeping, licensing the facilities through public health and implementing evidence based and trauma informed programming and environments.
Five of those recommendations have been implemented. The biggest improvements had been made in staffing.
“A huge thing is we’ve been able to bring the right and quality staff in the door,” LaBouchardiere said.
He credits a lot of the staffing improvements to the historic raises the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88 negotiated in 2021. This brought entry level wages for the facility from $17 an hour to $25 an hour.
“We’re not hurting for staffing so that’s key because the idea of our program is to have full staff engagement their entire shift, with that we expect them to participate in activities and be engaged with our girls on a daily basis,” Camelle said.
They’ve also hired case management staff, a licensed mental health therapist, a dedicated psychologist, an APRN and a shared child and adolescent psychiatrist.
With these staff in place, they’ve been able to start evidence-based and trauma-informed programming. This is key, because Sara Thomas, clinical director for YRTC, said more than 75% of their youth have experienced at least one traumatic event.
“We’re helping them learn skills to cope with those feelings and slow down their thought processes enough to not have an aggressive outburst or make impulsive decisions,” Thomas said.
She said they offer group therapy, individual therapy, family therapy and EMDR which is a treatment for reprocessing trauma.
The one recommendation the system hasn’t implemented is to license the facilities through the Division of Public Health.
“We really believe if there were people who had visited Geneva as it was starting to deteriorate, if they had a place to go like public health and say I’m seeing holes in the walls, I’m seeing all sorts of things happening, they would have been able to come out and address it,” Carter said.
LaBouchardiere said this exact topic is part of the YRTC five year plan created after the Geneva facility shut down. Currently, a license for a facility like the YRTCs doesn’t exist, so they have figure out what that would look like.
Until then, stakeholders say progress is clearly being made and is a far cry from where conditions were at three years ago, but at the same time, they said more changes need to be made.
“We can’t ask them to do everything,” Carter said. “We have to understand what they can do and what else is missing.”
She said this is key, because YRTCs are supposed to be the last stop for teens in the juvenile justice system if other options don’t work.
“You’re giving them a shot at the most productive and stable and hopefully happy life that they can have as fellow citizens in our community,” Carter said.
They said first - improvements have to continue in the three YRTCs in the state.
“We want youth voice to be centered in their policies and practices. Family engagement is another important piece,” Opfer said. “We also need to look at racial and ethnic disparities.”
Second - improvements need to be made to the entire juvenile justice system. LaBouchardiere is calling for a full review.
“We have kids who have gone to 12-15 placements if we could deep dive into why the kids keep getting moved from place to place and what other interventions can be put into place before they even come to YRTC,” LaBouchardiere said.
He said there also needs to be better re-entry programming so kids don’t come back and they get a real shot at a bright future.
“These kids are going to become your neighbors,” LaVouchardiere said.
While conditions are improved for kids, those who were at the Geneva YRTC at the time of its downfall, are looking for justice. The ACLU of Nebraska has filed a lawsuit on behalf of four girls at the facility. It’s still in early phases of litigation, but Scout Richters, with the ACLU provided the following statement:
DHHS declined to comment on the lawsuit, specifically.
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