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YJAM Series: A Tale of Five Houses

On Halloween, we take our children trick or treating from house to house in the neighborhood, but at the end of the night, we come back to our own home to snuggle in, telling ghost stories over a cup of hot cider and a full bag of candy.

All too often, kids in our juvenile justice system are also trekking from house to house — but not for just one night of costumes and candy.  They are spending weeks, months, and even years in costly placements away from home and family. In fact, reform reports from Probation’s Juvenile Services Division show that approximately 30% of young people on juvenile probation in Nebraska are living in an out-of-home placement.

This is a tale of five placements, where Nebraska’s kids are routinely sent to live.

1. HOME/FAMILY: Almost all juvenile court cases begin with the child at home, and if he goes out of the home for any reason, the goal is nearly always to eventually return him there. If his own home isn’t an option, sometimes he is able to reside with extended family or in kinship foster care while on probation. Responding to youthful misbehavior in the context in which it occurred and where the youth is likely to continue to reside, and engaging not only the youth but family and community supports that can wrap around him, is a best practice for reducing recidivism. It’s a strength of our system that the majority of young people on probation are in their own homes (about 2,400), and currently, an additional 135 kids are in relative foster care.

2. DETENTION: Detention is essentially jail for minors, meant to be used only for a short time to prevent immediate danger to the community or risk of flight to avoid further court proceedings.  Adults can get bonds set when they are taken to jail, paying a fee that guarantees they will appear in court on their trial date.  Minors don’t have that option, so when a young person gets detained, they get stuck in a secure facility– jumpsuit, locked cell, handcuffs and all– until a judge orders they can go home or on to another placement.  Nebraska statute currently allows judges to also detain young people if they pose a risk to themselves, a practice out of sync with what is best for kids. Although juvenile detention centers offer classwork and activities, and some have mental health providers on staff, they are simply not the right place for young people with serious mental illness and/or suicidal intent.  

3. GROUP HOME OR RESIDENTIAL TREATMENT:  Some young people have significant behavioral health needs or addictions that require greater structure and supervision than they can receive at home.  Private group homes offer accredited education programs and therapeutic programming.  Residential treatment placements offer a more intense focus on a particular mental health diagnosis or addiction.  While group homes and residential treatment are a necessary and important part of any juvenile justice spectrum, Nebraska disproportionately relies on them when compared with the rest of the country. The national Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency collects stats on youth in residential placement every two years.  The last report, from 2013, showed that though Nebraska had cut our number of kids in residential placement by over 40% in two years, we still had a higher rate of placement than the national average.  More recent numbers from Probation show that in August of 2015, 732 young people were living in congregate care placements.

4. OUT OF STATE CONGREGATE CARE: Nebraska has quite a few in-state private placement options, but only two state-run facilities that must accept youth if court-ordered there. This means that young people ordered by a judge into residential placement have to apply to private programs and wait to be accepted or rejected. If all the Nebraska facilities refuse to take a youth, the court will look at options outside our state.  Nebraska children are routinely going as far as Pennsylvania and Arizona to receive treatment services– pulled far from the family and community to which they will eventually return. Moreover, these facilities are not subject to Nebraska licensing or inspection, and depending on the distance, Probation may be unable to routinely visit youth and ensure safety.  As of August, 14% of Nebraska youth living in congregate care were in out-of-state facilities (104 of 732 total young people).   

5. YRTC: Nebraska’s two state-run facilities are the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers (YRTCs) at Kearney and Geneva.  Intended for only the highest risk/highest need population of juvenile justice involved youth, the YRTCs are campus-style correctional facilities. We encourage you to read our full report on progress and lingering concerns with the YRTCs.  Though populations have decreased and some evidence-based programming has been implemented, we remain concerned about the disproportionate number of youth of color being sent to the YRTCs, the continued use of correctional measures like extended solitary confinement, and the lack of systemic evidence to demonstrate long-term success or failure.

Sending a young person far from home and family is a costly response, and not a guarantee of lifelong success for her when she returns to her community.  Each level of care is a necessary part of the spectrum, but we need to structure our system in a way that minimizes the “tricks” of revolving door placements and snowballing trauma, and maximizes the “treats” of internalized positive change and increased engagement with home and community.

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