GENEVA — The Nebraska Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee conducted a hearing here Wednesday, just over one month since the girls at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center-Geneva were moved to the boys’ campus in Kearney.
Members of the public spoke to the committee about YRTC-Geneva in response to Legislative Resolutions 103 and 200. The resolutions call for an interim study on staffing concerns and programming, respectively.
The study also is in response to the recent movement of girls from YRTC-Geneva to YRTC-Kearney, where they currently are housed. All girls were removed from the Geneva campus in late August after a sprinkler system was damaged by a group of girls and four state senators made an unannounced visit to the facility.
Following the senators’ visit, the campus was closed on grounds of a lack of staff, lack of programming and deterioration of buildings.
During Wednesday’s hearing, several members of the public spoke. One of the key testimonies was given by Frank Heinisch, who served on YRTC-Geneva’s advisory board for 39 years.
Heinisch explained that many of the challenges at Geneva are caused a small population of girls that act as instigators.
Heinisch said the general practice at YRTC-Geneva is to separate the instigators from the girls who don’t cause problems.
“The key to operating Geneva YRTC is to separate the population into appropriate groups, into cottages,” Heinisch said.
The cottage that was damaged by a group of girls was LaFlesche Cottage. LaFlesche is the most secure of the four cottages on the YRTC-Geneva campus.
“LeFlesche is our secure place. One of the ways of saying it is we’re to run a race car with three wheels,” Heinisch said. “If we do not have the facilities to take care of these hardened young ladies, or gentlemen, then you’re going to integrate them into the population and your population is going to turn south.”
Because the LaFlesche building was damaged and staffing was short, however, YRTC wasn’t able to keep those girls separate following the vandalism.
Bette Mattox, who retired from YRTC about a month ago after working there for 32 years and worked as a case manager, spoke on the short staffing. Mattox said that the staff shortages put a strain on the facility’s ability to operate. Mattox said the challenge was mostly in vacancies of key positions.
Those key positions made it difficult to adjust to changes in programming and supervise girls at YRTC-Geneva, she said. Because of those vacancies, many staff members were untrained and overworked.
“A lot of staff members were pushed to the limits trying to absorb these extra job duties, and training probably wasn’t as good as it could have been,” Mattox said. “Nobody knew what was going on, to tell you the truth, so that was quite destabilizing for the facility.”
That lack of training led to a lack of programming. At one point, programming was removed and replaced, but because nobody was trained to deliver the new programming, that programming effectively was non-existent.
Mary Stofer worked at YRTC-Geneva for 38 years and retired about four years ago as the facility operator. Stofer testified Wednesday that programming is crucial for effective rehabilitation and treatment. Stofer also added that the programming should be specifically tailored to the girls.
“This philosophy permeates your whole campus: your cooks, your medical staff, your maintenance staff. Everybody is aware of this philosophy,” Stofer said.
Stofer added that when the state Department of Administrative Services took over maintenance of the buildings two years ago, gaps in maintenance responsibilities developed. The Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for operating the center.
“They need to have an understanding of the overall facility operation,” Stofer said of NDAS. “They need to understand how that physical plant affects our programming.”
Heinisch also said that before the programming can be presented effectively, the girls need to develop relationships with staff and learn that they are there to get better. He said the staff needs to be trained on how to develop those relationships, however.
“It takes a while for the staff to be trained, to understand how to deal with it and create the relationship,” Heinisch said. “You need six months, sometime a year, for a child to understand the culture is one of care and concern, not incarceration out there. Once we get past the care and concern, we do our magic.”
At the end of the hearing, Dannette Smith, DHHS CEO, talked about the actions to help with staffing. On Sept. 21, Smith said, they hired six more people for the YRTC system and two offers are pending.
Smith also said the girls are adjusting to YRTC-Kearney and now have programming and have an assigned mental health therapist.
“Many considerations were made at the best interest of the children, the families and the staff,” she said. “The department’s goal is to ensure an environment that is safe and supportive and gives youth the opportunity to thrive as they move into adulthood.”
Smith said DHHS still is looking at options for where the girls will be permanently housed and what facilities will look like.
In addition to people testifying about staffing and programming issues, several members of the community spoke on their work with the girls.
Jill Schmidt, director of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, said the girls in YRTC help volunteer for several community activities. Schmidt said the girls have made significant contributions for charity and not having them will put a strain on a few of the events. Schmidt added that the girls also appreciate being on the helping side of charities, rather than being helped.
Pam Harms has helped mentor for several years. Harms said she volunteers to help the girls because it is fulfilling.
“The girls give so much more back to me in purpose for my life, than what I could give to them. And if they’re not here, we can’t mentor them,” she said.
Heinisch said the YRTC girls are a large part of the community, and he considers them to be everyone’s children.
“Our biggest problem now is we want to go out and visit our kids,” Heinisch said.