outside view of building
Established in 2020, the Lincoln Facility for the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers is located at the Lancaster County Youth Services Center in south Lincoln. Photo by Cassandra Kostal/NNS

A bill being considered by the Nebraska Legislature would allow the state’s youth rehabilitation and treatment centers to transfer juveniles before scheduling a hearing in an emergency situation.

Introduced by Sen. John Lowe of Kearney, LB273 would allow the Office of Juvenile Services to transfer juveniles to another YRTC without requiring a court hearing beforehand. Lowe introduced the bill to address “long-running” issues at Nebraska’s YRTCs, such as substance abuse and behavioral health problems.

An amendment proposed by the Judiciary Committee replaced the original bill. The amendment would allow the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to transfer a juvenile to a different facility by filing an emergency change of placement motion. A hearing on the motion would take place within 24 hours of the filing.

Without the provisional change, it can take up to 30 days to move a juvenile from one facility to another, according to Mark LaBouchardiere, Office of Juvenile Services administrator. During that time, high-risk juveniles are not receiving the specialized care they need, he said.

LaBouchardiere said it puts the kid at risk, and they’re trying to make sure a juvenile is in the best environment for his or her safety and needs.

“Hence the reason why for an emergency placement where we, per the amendment, we would still notify all parties,” LaBouchardiere said.

The Nebraska DHHS currently operates a YRTC in Kearney for both males and females, and a YRTC for females opened in Hastings in April 2021. Juveniles are court-ordered to YRTCs after it is determined that they have exhausted all lower-level, community-based service options.

“These kids have had a pretty traumatic life, whether they’ve moved from placement to placement or they have run from it,” LaBouchardiere said. “The difference with a placement to Kearney or a YRTC is that we cannot say, ‘No, we’re not going to take this kid.’ If a judge orders a kid to us, we have to take the kid regardless of any mental health or behavioral health or psychiatric need.”

In early 2020, the DHHS opened the Lincoln Youth Facility. The facility was set up to accept transfers from YRTC-Kearney after it was determined that a juvenile’s behavior or mental health needs represented a higher risk.

LB273 would make it easier for the DHHS to transfer juveniles to the Lincoln facility where they could receive specialized care for mental health, behavioral health or psychiatric needs. All transfers would require the approval of a licensed mental health professional.

“Clinically, if they feel there is an emergent need where the kid would be better suited at the Lincoln facility, that’s how we would like it to take place,” LaBouchardiere said. “A licensed person would not put their license on the line to say, ‘I’m just going to move this kid for no reason.’ It has to be a valid, emergent reason, and generally, it’s a mental health reason or a behavioral reason.”

Despite support for LB273, Sens. Justin Wayne and Tony Vargas, both of Omaha, have voiced concerns regarding the bill content.

Wayne’s concern with LB273 was that it lacked provisions that would protect the rights of parents while the DHHS decides that their child needs to be transferred to the Lincoln facility in an emergency situation.

Vargas voiced a similar opinion but added that he is also concerned about ambiguity, or a lack of detail regarding the youth transfer process.

“My concern was that lack of specificity could have severe unintended consequences with how they move youths,” Vargas said. “I don’t want the overuse of this tool to occur where we make up reasons to move youth and then they’re moved temporarily, but in reality, we’re sort of skirting the system and it’s a sort of loophole. That’s my larger concern.”

According to Vargas, when LB273 was initially introduced, it took a very different form. He said the original bill was trying to undo changes made in the last year under LB 1140.

LB 1140 was introduced in January 2020 by Sen. Sara Howard on behalf of the Health and Human Services Committee and signed into law by Gov. Pete Ricketts in August 2020. The bill defined YRTCs in Nebraska as well as the programming and treatment each YRTC should provide to the youths it serves.

Since it was introduced, LB 273 has undergone multiple amendments as Lowe and the Judiciary Committee work with Vargas, among others, to review and adapt the language of the bill.

Vargas said he had an issue with equity and access regarding parent/guardian notification outlined in the most recent version of the bill. He received new language from the Judiciary Committee and Lowe on April 7 and was looking forward to reviewing the language to see how it addressed concerns. 

“I hope the final bill addresses unintended consequences as much as possible,” Vargas said. “I don’t want this to be overused in a way that can harm or create a lack of consistency for youths in YRTC and we won’t know until it’s in effect, but the YRTC Oversight Committee, which I’ve served on for the last year, will be monitoring this and I will be personally as well.”

Senators unanimously approved the bill 35-0 on March 29.