Frustrated parents seek middle step in treatment of Nebraska youths in juvenile justice

Group also seeks to move probation out from under state court system

By: - February 13, 2023 5:45 am

Parents of children who have been held in juvenile detention centers like the Douglas County Youth Center say they want a middle step between treatment in the community and full detention. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — Nebraska’s juvenile court judges would have a new option for struggling teenagers who need mental health treatment, short of sending them to a detention facility, under a pilot proposal being considered by the Legislature.

And parents of wayward teens would have an advocate to help them navigate the state’s juvenile justice system, under a related bill. Under current law, many parents complain that the people deciding the fate of their children hardly consider the parents’ input.

Three mothers who shared their families’ stories said the legislative proposals would help the state fix problems they and their families have faced while in the system. They spoke on behalf of 15 families working with the bills’ sponsor, State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln.

Shown is the Douglas County Youth Center in Omaha, where young people in the juvenile justice system are sometimes housed. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Each mother spoke about struggles in helping kids who spent months bouncing between juvenile probation and detention. The mothers shared their experiences on the condition that their last names and their children’s names not be used.

Tiffany said she turned to police and the courts because she felt “helpless.” But her teenager’s behavior problems and mental health issues worsened. 

“Too much has happened,” she said. “Too many balls have been dropped, and not one person has been held accountable, nor have my concerns ever been validated.” 

Tiffany and the other parents support two proposals by Geist, Legislative Bills 435 and 473. They said more teens would benefit from having time away to work on their mental health, and they would benefit from having parents who know where to go and whom to ask to help in the complex juvenile justice system.

Advocates of past juvenile justice reforms question whether the proposals would achieve those goals and worry they might lean too heavily on forcing teens into treatment for substance abuse or mental health. These advocates expressed a willingness to consider the changes, however. 

The parents’ urgency is personal. Each said they saw their teens become ungovernable after starting with problems like missing school, drug use or aggressive behavior after being bullied, which is why they turned to police and the juvenile justice system for help. 

Tiffany shared the story of her daughter, who often ran away from home and from out-of-home placements. She said that while her daughter was on juvenile probation and away from home, she became addicted to meth and was beaten, burned and trafficked for sex.

The mother blames the state for not following through on court orders that directed the teen to be placed in juvenile detention if she ran away. She said she could not persuade the state to treat her daughter’s running away as a serious problem, requiring a serious consequence.

Parent involvement

A major flaw of the juvenile justice system, she and the other parents said, is that it treats teenagers as if they were independent adults. It too often leaves parents outside of the circle of lawyers, judges and probation officers who are steering their teens’ future, the mothers said.

State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln speaks during legislative debate. (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

That is, unless the parents know enough or have enough money to hire their own lawyer to work on their behalf, separate from the interests of the child, said Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson. 

Hanson said he supports LB 435 because it values parent involvement. That bill would create a new position in Nebraska’s juvenile justice system: an adviser for parents and guardians who are trying to navigate having a child involved with juvenile court.

“Parents have to be involved in the process,” Hanson said. “It’s not only making it more difficult on the children. It’s traumatizing the parents.”

The idea is akin to a CASA volunteer for parents. In the CASA program, court-appointed special advocates stand up for the best interests of children in the child welfare system and help relay what’s happening. 

Geist said her goal is helping parents engage and help steer at least some of the care and consequences their children are getting by showing them whom to engage with and at what point during the process. 

State Court Administrator Corey Steel said the state court system, which is in charge of juvenile courts and probation, is reviewing LB 435. As a concept, he said, the courts could end up supporting juvenile court navigators.

The challenge comes in deciding whether such a program should be part of the probation system, which the courts manage, or be placed elsewhere in state government, he said.

Advocates for continued juvenile justice reforms also said they support the concept, as long as the new parent advisers understand they cannot provide legal advice.

Inpatient mental health care facility

LB 473 would spend $12 million to create an inpatient mental health facility, a middle step for youths who break the law, between the system’s current options: provide troubled teens with mental health treatment while living at home or confining them to a juvenile detention center.

The bill would fund a pilot program creating a 16-bed facility for young offenders run by the state. Two private facilities in Nebraska currently provide the sort of inpatient mental health care the bill would carve out for teens in the juvenile justice system. No state-run facility currently provides these services in Nebraska. 

“What we’re talking about is true kindness, true help,” Geist said. “People are not getting better. If we want them to, it takes finances and it takes time.”

The parents lauded the pilot program as a sort of transitional regional center like Nebraska used to operate for adults with serious mental health needs, but it would be tailored toward the needs of young people facing consequences from juvenile court.

“It would prevent more trauma,” Leigh said. “Our kids are addicted to hurting themselves, and all this chaos. It’s just imperative for everybody.”

Corey Steel
State Court Administrator Corey Steel (Courtesy of the Nebraska Judicial Branch)

Her daughter entered the system after she started skipping school at age 13. She didn’t understand the consequences of her actions and started trying drugs, her mom said. Desperate not to lose custody of her child to the state, Leigh begged her daughter’s school for help.

The teen ended up on juvenile probation and in and out of juvenile detention centers, escalating from drug possession charges to theft and fleeing from authorities. Leigh said she would have loved the option of a treatment center where her child could not just walk away. 

A third mother, Amber, said she argued with juvenile probation officers and judges to get them to understand that her increasingly defiant daughter needed more mental health help before she could be released on probation into her parent’s care or a halfway house.

But her teen was released before the family was ready. She came home, got angry about living with a parent’s rules and started smashing up the living room, including punching a TV and throwing items at furniture and walls. Amber and her youngest child had to hide in another room while waiting on authorities to respond.

She said she believes that sending her daughter to a mandatory treatment facility could have saved her family much pain.

“She would have had somewhere to go,” Amber said of her daughter.

Secure or inpatient treatment

Juliet Summers, executive director of Voices for Children, which has pressed to make the juvenile justice system less punitive and more treatment-focused, said her group is intrigued by the proposal for a state mental health facility for youths.

A mural is shown at the Douglas County Youth Center. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The organization would oppose the bill if it kept its current language describing the pilot mental health facility as “secure,” however, because that sounds like a juvenile detention center.

Voices for Children doesn’t want to see a new treatment facility located in a locked wing of a detention center. But the organization would be willing to work with Geist on calling for a state residential mental health treatment center, Summers said. 

The state needs a more meaningful system of mental health care for young people that handles cases in a consistent way, Summers said. 

“If that’s what they’re wanting to build, something like a regional center for kids, that’s something we would help them to build,” Summers said.

The three parents the Examiner spoke with said they pushed for a “secure” facility because treatment can’t be optional. 

“Our kids run,” Leigh said. 

Summers agreed that the system needs more options. She said a single, 16-bed facility might help but said the state’s needs run deeper than a pilot program can fix.

She wants the state to host an effective hotline that parents can call and have a therapist intervene long before a youth ends up in court. 

The parents interviewed said they’ve called the state crisis hotline before, and they’ve seen crisis counselors leave without offering further help if they decide a teen is not an imminent danger to themselves.

“Your kid may calm down for a moment,” Tiffany said, “but that doesn’t take away from the issue at hand.”

Public hearings on the bills start Wednesday, with the proposed treatment center.

Wayne bill would move probation away from the judicial branch 

The same group of parents pushing for changes in how the juvenile justice system handles mental health care for teens also wants a change in who oversees probation, juvenile and adult. 

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha has proposed Legislative Bill 479, which would move the probation system from the judicial branch to the executive branch, shifting it from under the state court system to under the direction of a gubernatorial appointee. Wayne, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, declined to speak about the bill publicly before a legislative hearing is held.

Justin Wayne testifies
State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha introduces a bill before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

But state lawmakers have butted heads with the court system when the Legislature has tried to assert its typical oversight role onto the probation system. The courts have argued that when the Legislature requires reports and detailed information about adult or juvenile probation, that violates the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches. 

Corey Steel, the state court administrator, said the court system opposes any transfer of the probation system from the judicial branch to the executive branch. 

He said having probation within the court system streamlines how the judges make decisions on probation consequences, pre-sentence investigations and more. 

Having the judicial branch oversee probation “strengthens case management with the ability to impose sanctions,” he said. Moving probation under the executive branch would “drastically change problem-solving courts … really transform the system and slow it down.”

The biggest change sought by the parents interviewed is the ability to sue the state if something goes wrong for someone on probation. Under the current system, parents can file a complaint with the probation administrator, who works for the court system. But the Nebraska Constitution and state law don’t allow people to sue the judicial branch. 

Tiffany, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be published, had a child  on juvenile probation who was nearly placed in the home of a felon. Tiffany raised alarms about the person and shared emails showing that court officials doubted her, though she was right.

She said she later found out that because her child had an individual education program, her placement was governed by a separate system for developmentally disabled children, which requires a less stringent background check. 

Tiffany also said a lawsuit could have pressed probation officers to follow court orders more closely. She said she would have sued had state law allowed it. 

Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson said he backs the change in oversight for probation services. “I think the judicial branch needs to focus on being the judicial branch,” he said.


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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.