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New DHHS Business Plan Neglects Safety Concerns

This week, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) released the agency’s business plan for 2018-2019. While we are pleased with several elements of the plan including working to improve maternal-child health and implement a system of care, Voices for Children is gravely concerned about the ongoing disregard for evidence-based strategies to address youth and community safety at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center (YRTC) at Kearney.

The single goal for improvements at the YRTC-Kearney is to build a fence around the facility. This would represent a substantial step backward for a facility that has seen improvements in recent years. A fence might keep in the 21 youth who attempted to abscond in the previous fiscal year, but would simultaneously make this “treatment center” more prison-like for all the youth committed there, and is contrary to recognized best practice around the country and steps that have been taken to ensure that our juvenile justice system is truly rehabilitative. Increased staff, reduced youth population, and improved mental health and individualized treatment programming would have a more meaningful effect for more youth at a substantially lower cost. Other states are closing similar facilities entirely.

During the 2017 legislative session, the Department of Health and Human Services testified in opposition to a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement of youth in juvenile facilities, including the YRTCs. The agency submitted a fiscal note claiming that bill would cost approximately $4 million because the elimination of solitary confinement would require building a fence around each facility. It is unclear from the business plan where this amount of money would be found within the existing agency budget, and there is no evidence that the expenditure would result in better outcomes for the youth or communities.  All of our communities are ultimately safer if we are able to effectively rehabilitate youth who come into contact with our justice system and a fence does not contribute to that goal.

“Every stage of our juvenile justice system should operate in a way that is developmentally responsive and aimed at rehabilitation. Putting up a million dollar fence around an outdated youth prison facility is a poor investment in the future of our youth and the communities they will return to,” said Juliet Summers, Policy Coordinator for Voices for Children.

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