Last week, Voices for Children staff members traversed the state to get a clear picture of what it looks like to grow up in different parts of Nebraska. Though we greatly enjoyed meeting community members, discussing Kids Count data, visiting facilities, and sharing the work that we do, one aspect of our trip stuck out in a troubling way.
On Thursday morning, we toured the Scottsbluff Juvenile Detention Center, leaving around 10:00 AM. By 10:30, the board of county commissioners had voted to “temporarily suspend” juvenile services and use the space for overflow from their crowded adult jail. Juvenile probation was required to make plans for the five children currently incarcerated there and remove them by midnight. Emergency court hearings were held for the youth to determine their fates. It is unclear whether and how long the facility will be used for adults, or if the juvenile services will be restarted in that space or in another form or facility.
Detention centers are not our best resource for responding to child needs, and all too often, kids get stuck waiting in detention for an evaluation or other placement even though their level of risk does not suggest they need that level of security. There is some evidence to suggest that jurisdictions in closer proximity to a detention facility are more likely to rely on it; when a detention center is not readily available, rates of detention compared to release are lower. In fact, we have received information that three of the five youth who had been residing there were sent home, which begs the question of whether they required secure confinement in the first place.
That being said, decisions affecting children’s futures should never be made on the basis of adult convenience. The way the closure was handled is troubling to say the least; requiring the children’s removal by midnight was unfair not only to the facility staff and probation, but to the children and their families. Every change of placement can be, in itself, a traumatic experience. While three kids were released, the other two had to be relocated across the state to facilities in Lincoln and Omaha. Through no fault of their own, those youth were suddenly and unexpectedly moved eight hours away, to a different facility with new rules, expectations, policies, and populations. All children in our state’s care deserve the opportunity for thoughtful case planning; in making their decision to suspend juvenile services, the county board should have offered more time for transition planning to occur.
We hope that big-picture decisions moving forward will be made with children’s needs at the forefront, and that Scottsbluff takes this opportunity to invest in community-based resources to provide services to keep their youth safely at home and in the community.
 In a 2014 evaluation of the probation detention screening tool, completed by UNO’s Juvenile Justice Initiative, the Judicial Districts with the highest rates of detention compared with release were those closest to our five detention facilities: District 2 (Patrick J. Thomas Juvenile Justice Center), District 3J (Lancaster Youth Services Center), District 4J (Douglas County Youth Center), District 5 (Northeast Juvenile Services), and District 12 (Scottsbluff Juvenile Detention Center). See Figures 6 and 7 in the full report here.