"This is a community and state issue:" YRTC to work with area law enforcment on safety, security

KEARNEY, Neb. (KSNB) - After a string of violent assaults and escapes at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney, local and state leaders have said enough is enough.

DHHS is addressing the string of violent assaults and escapes at the Kearney YRTC, and has a detailed plan on how to move forward.

Dannette Smith, CEO of DHHS, said those incidents can be tied back to low staffing and outdated protocols. As they look to stabilize, the YRTC has another problem on their hands.

Smith said some of the kids they're getting are much more violent and troubled than they've been in the past.

"I would say that the most violent kids we have at the YRTC are not appropriate for that campus," Smith said.

Now, DHHS and YRTC staff need to learn how to move forward addressing plans all the way from prevention to treatment.

Right now, YRTC leadership is on campus 24 hours a day. This is meant to provide extra safety and security for the existing staff and youth.

They're also increasing staffing at the facility. Smith said they plan to pull some staff from their Lincoln and Geneva facilities to fill in.

"It should not be our responsibility as a state community to dump them off. It is our responsibility to figure out how we care for them, but in the most appropriate environment," Smith said.

Smith said they've also started a committee called the 'Future State Planning Committee for Nebraska's Youth Care System,' which includes discussions on the YRTC. That committee will work to develop more programs, provide services and enhance coordination across the continuum of care.

Smith said they're also looking to bring in a national consultant to tell them what's working and what needs to be fixed.

There are currently 118 youths at the YRTC.

"Just from what I know from being in law enforcement the past 22 years there is a different clientele that are being committed to the YRTC Kearney," said Chief Bryan Waugh, Kearney Police Department.

The Kearney Police Department and Buffalo County Sheriff's Department will work with the facility to develop an emergency response plan for when incidents break out at the facility. That way staff will know what to expect when law enforcement arrives, and what to do while they wait.

Law enforcement will also work with them to draw up new training protocol. With recent incidents, and more youth coming in with criminal histories, police will teach staff things like self defense and de-escalation techniques.

"We want to make sure that that staff is safe, and that they have the tools and training they need when they have to interact with potential violence," Waugh said.

DHHS has also promised to strengthen existing protocols. They said there'll be a temporary suspension on furloughs and off-site visits for 30 days. On-site family visits are limited to parents, guardians and children of the youth.

Smith said they've put in a request to judges for a 10-day pause from juveniles going to Kearney to help stabilize their current situation.

On the legislative front, Sen. John Lowe, District 37, said more needs to be done.

"I blame myself and those other senators on the floor. We're the ones that pass the bills and create the laws, which are inhibiting the staff members from doing what they need to do," Lowe said. "We're not going to put it off for two years. We can't do it until certain people retire. We can't do that. We've got to do it now."

Smith said they're also planning on transferring six "high-acuity" male youth to the Lincoln facility, which has more "intensive interventions such as targeted behavioral and trauma-based programming."

Three female youth who are about ready to transition back into the community will be sent to the Geneva facility, and two male youths will be sent to the Hastings Regional Center to deal with substance abuse issues.