Problems persist at YRTC; New administration to make changes
May 24th, 2016
A detention facility for high-risk youth has been the center of debate for one Nebraska community. Kearney looks to deal with issues at its Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center.
A few years ago, Christine Suchsland and her family moved here to the semi-rural Kearney neighborhood of Canal Heights. At first it seemed like any other quiet neighborhood. But they soon found out they would be frequented by unwelcome visitors.
“They’ll run through the fence line here, and end up back in our neighborhood here. They’ll cross the street and come right up to the back of the house,” Suchsland said.
Suchsland points past the property line of brush and trees to 30th Avenue; and on the other side of that street lies Kearney’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center or YRTC. YRTC is a high risk youth detention center for boys. Over the past several months it’s seen an uptick in escapes. Many of the boys head straight for Canal Heights because of the cover it provides. That has lead to a number of hostile encounters between escapees and the residents here.
“We’ve had too many different experiences to count,” Suchsland said. “My husband has helped to detain kids on the property before. I have my own children and I worry for their safety. We feel like we can’t leave them alone, even though they’re teenagers.”
Fred George also lives in Canal Heights. He recently had escapees show up at his door, saying their car broke down, and they needed to use his phone. He immediately called the police.
“I think something needs to be done, because it’s not working… It is scary. I hope nobody has to pay the consequences for not having done anything,” George said.
Other escapes have included more violent exchanges like assaults and carjackings.
Stan Clouse is Kearney’s mayor. Last month, he and nearly 200 city residents attended a town hall meeting organized to address those concerns.
“Some things need to change because we’ve seen some operational issues, we’ve seen a lot of the youth escape and it’s a raised a lot of concern in our community,” Clouse said. “There’s a little bit of skepticism… We’ll see how it works out.”
This meeting and the center’s recent escapes aren’t the first time the YRTC has found itself in a negative light. YTRC is run by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human services or NDHHS. For the past decade, the department has been heavily criticized for its mismanagement of publicly-run facilities like YRTC and the Beatrice State Developmental Center. It’s now trying to reverse that image.
State Senator and Speaker Galen Hadley represents Kearney’s District 37. He organized this town hall meeting. In the past, Hadley has been critical of the DHHS, but now says he’s optimistic. He points to some of the recent changes made by Governor Pete Ricketts – particularly the hiring of new CEO, Courtney Phillips.
“Courtney Phillips has just done an outstanding job. She’s getting her team together to work on this and I think this has risen to the level or real concern in DHHS,” Hadley said. “YRTC just didn’t rise to the top before. I think it will now.”
Another change came in early April when DHHS hired YRTC’s new director, Mark LaBouchardiere.
LaBouchardiere has 20 years of experience working with youth at high-risk facilities across four states; most recently as deputy director for the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice. As part of Nebraska’s juvenile justice reform in 2014, lawmakers passed a law that designated YRTC as the state’s facility for all types of offenders – ranging from low to high – when they’ve exhausted all possibilities of probation or community supervision. LaBouchardiere says the center now has an influx of high-risk offenders.
“We’re leaving no stone unturned,” LaBouchardiere said. “As that population has changed, we have to change our strategy into dealing with that high-risk population. We’re looking at the programs and treatment models specifically targeting that high-risk population.”
Residents have overwhelmingly requested the construction of a fence to surround YRTC’s currently open campus. The city of Kearney has offered to pay for it, but DHHS has so far declined. LaBouchardiere says it’s an option he and his team are looking into and are currently waiting on a cost analysis before moving forward. Since April’s town hall meeting, the center has had several more escape attempts – including last week when one teen stole a vehicle and damaged private property while fleeing from police. Both were apprehended.