By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN — Omaha attorney Jennifer Piatt’s heart was racing, but she was so tired of hearing the implication that kids who go to the juvenile jails in Geneva and Kearney are violent criminals that she visited the Capitol to tell lawmakers what she thought of their plan to possibly close them.
She was sent to the Geneva juvenile jail twice – for shoplifting a $9.99 ring, violating probation and smoking marijuana once.
Piatt told Nebraska lawmakers she agrees the state is locking up too many kids, but after being in foster care, group homes and probation, she came to the conclusion that the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva helped her turn her life around.
“It was Geneva that saved me,” she said.
However, the center for boys in Kearney — where boys are housed in dorms — is a different story, she said.
“It’s where the problems are,” Piatt said.
Piatt was one of a long line of Nebraskans who testified on a bill that would overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system by moving to community-based treatment and closing the two juvenile jails by 2015. Nebraska locks up troubled kids at the third-highest rate in the nation, but the prospect of closing the state’s two juvenile jails brought a wave of opposition from their employees, union leaders, prosecutors and people who got help in the facilities.
Piatt said while she understands the value of treating troubled kids in their homes or closer to home; sometimes that’s where the problem lies.
Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford – who is leading the charge for reform – vowed to get “substantial reform” passed this year by either closing or transforming the juvenile jails.
“What we have now is not working,” he said, citing assaults in the centers and a lack of “evidence-based” treatment. “No one is here to try to punish or penalize Kearney or Geneva … but we absolutely must change a system that incarcerates youth at the rate we are in Nebraska.”
His bill would create an Office of Juvenile Assistance to oversee the expansion statewide of what is now a pilot project.
“There is no silver bullet to this problem,” Ashford said. “This committee has labored for seven years to try to find a way to address in a substantial way the ever-increasing number of children being incarcerated in our state.”
The bill’s co-sponsor, Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, said he’s glad the prospect of closing the Geneva and Kearney jails got people’s attention. There will always be a need for a detention facility, he said, but he said it’s time to move from brick and mortar to treating kids in less restrictive settings.
“Let’s treat kids like kids,” Krist said.
Ashford brought in an adolescent psychiatrist from the University of Washington, Terry Lee, to evaluate Nebraska’s juvenile system and make recommendations. He said the most effective treatments emphasize keeping kids in their environment — which is also cheaper — and only the most high-risk youth should be taken out of their homes.
The state spends about $25 million on the two juvenile jails, which house about 500 kids, Lee said. Since most kids don’t stay for a whole year, he estimates the cost per child at about $50,000 annually. Sarah Forrest, policy coordinator for Voices for Children, said most kids don’t belong in the facilities, and the bill “shutters two facilities that aren’t working for kids and monopolize all our money.” Ashford said about half the kids are high-risk offenders.
If Kearney remains open, Lee recommends the state convert it from dorms to individual rooms to reduce fighting.
“If kids don’t feel safe then it’s hard to do any kind of treatment,” he said.
Thomas Pristow, director of children and family services for the state Health and Human Services department, seemed supportive of reform, saying the state is “sometimes warehousing kids.” Pristow, who’s been in his position for about a year, said there is no statewide criteria for admission to the two juvenile jails.
“Nebraska has a very unique way of handling their youth,” Pristow said. “It’s not working. This is not rocket science here.”
John Cavanaugh, executive director of the nonprofit Building Bright Futures that helps at-risk children, called Ashford’s bill “a landmark piece of legislation for the state.” He said Nebraska was once a leader in establishing juvenile courts, but now has a crisis in juvenile justice and is failing its children.
“We have drifted from that primarily because we have abandoned community services,” he said.
But some cautioned that community-based services must be in place before making big changes.
Buffalo County Attorney Shawn Eatherton said there will always be a need for detention centers and most of the kids in them have been through the system.
But one young woman who spent four years at the Geneva treatment center said she is proof that it works. She dropped out of school at 16 and was involved in gangs, drugs and alcohol, living in foster homes and group homes before being committed to Geneva from 1999 to 2003. She said she would have ended up dead or in prison without it.
“I think closing it would be a really big mistake,” Araceli Morales told the Judiciary Committee. “I think Geneva was my life-saving place.”
Several people who work and teach at the centers testified about the good work being done there. Nancy Lyon, who has taught at the Kearney center for 28 years, said the center isn’t without its problems, but sometimes kids’ problems revolve around their home, neighborhood or school.
“YRTC is not their first rodeo,” she said. “We stabilize them, eliminate the clutter in their lives.”
Julie Dake-Abel, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said closing the centers would destabilize an already unstable juvenile justice system, and the bill doesn’t leave enough time to set up adequate community programs.
Despite the long line of people who opposed his bill, Ashford made it clear he intends to pursue sweeping change this year.
“We’re going to fix the system this year,” he said. “Clearly the problem is the system, not the people.”
Editor’s note: to subscribe to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no cost, click here.