Frustrated parents seek middle ground in treatment of Nebraska youth in juvenile justice

LINCOLN, Neb.Nebraska Exam) – Nebraska juvenile court judges have a new option for struggling teenagers who need mental health treatment before they can be sent to detention centers, under a pilot proposal being considered by the Legislature.

And parents of minors would have protections under a related bill to help them navigate the state’s juvenile justice system. Based on the current law, many parents complain that the people who decide the fate of their children hardly take into account the contribution of parents.

Three mothers who shared their families’ stories said the proposed legislation would help the state address the challenges they and their families faced while in the system. They spoke on behalf of 15 families working with the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Susan Geist of Lincoln.

Every mother knows about the struggles of helping children who have months between juvenile probation and arrest. Mothers told about their experience under the condition that their children’s names and surnames are not used.

Tiffany said she went to the police and the courts because she felt “insignificant”. But his adolescent behavior problems and mental health problems worsened.

“Too much has happened,” he said. “A lot of balls have been dropped and no one has been held accountable and my concerns have never been confirmed.”

Tiffany and other parents support Geist’s two proposals, House Bills 435 and 473. They said that most teenagers benefit from taking time for their mental health and from having parents who know where to go and who to ask. to help with the complex juvenile justice system.

Proponents of past juvenile justice reforms question whether the proposals achieve those goals and worry they could end up forcing teenagers into drug or mental health treatment. However, these proponents expressed a willingness to consider changes.

The influence of parents is personal. Each said they saw their teens become unmanageable after problems such as truancy, drug use or aggressive behavior after being bullied, so they turned to the police and the juvenile justice system for help. .

Tiffany shared the story of her daughter, who often ran away from home and places outside the home. She said that while her daughter was in juvenile detention and away from home, she became addicted to drugs and was beaten, burned and trafficked for sex.

The mother blames the state for not complying with the court order that if the teenager runs away, he will be placed in a juvenile detention center. He said that he could not convince the state to consider his daughter’s escape as a serious problem that requires serious consequences.

Parent involvement

A major flaw in the juvenile justice system, she and other parents say, is that it treats teenagers like independent adults. Mothers say this often leaves parents out of touch with the lawyers, judges and probation officers who will guide their teenagers’ futures.

That is, if the parents don’t have enough education or money to hire an attorney to work in the best interests of the child, Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson said.

Hanson said he supports LB 435 because it values ​​parental involvement. This bill creates a new position in Nebraska’s juvenile justice system: a counselor for parents and guardians trying to get a child involved with the juvenile court.

“Parents need to be involved in the process,” Hanson said. “It doesn’t just make it harder for the kids. It hurts the parents.”

This idea is similar to a CASA volunteer for parents. In the CASA program, court-appointed special advocates advocate for the best interests of children in the child welfare system and help report incidents.

Geist said her goal is to help parents get involved and get at least some of the care and consequences for their children to show them who to engage with and at what point in the process.

Corey Steele State Court administrator said the state court system, which is responsible for juvenile courts and parole, is considering LB 435. As a concept, according to him, the courts can end up supporting juvenile court navigators.

At issue is whether such a program should be part of a probation system administered by the courts or housed elsewhere in state government, he said.

Advocates of continuing juvenile justice reform also said they support the concept as long as new parenting counselors understand they cannot provide legal advice.

Inpatient psychiatric facility

LB 473 would spend $12 million to create an inpatient mental health facility, an intermediate step for young people who run afoul of the law, among the system’s current options: providing troubled teens with mental health treatment while living at home or confining them to detention. minors

The bill would fund a pilot program, a 16-bed facility for young offenders run by the state. Two private facilities in Nebraska currently offer the type of inpatient mental health care the bill provides for youth in the juvenile justice system. No state agency currently offers these services in Nebraska.

“What we’re talking about is real kindness, real help,” Geist said. “People don’t get better. If we want it, it will take money and time.”

Parents have praised the pilot program as a regional transition center, like Nebraska, for adults with serious mental health needs, but it will be tailored to the needs of young people facing the consequences of juvenile court.

“It prevents more damage,” Lee said. “Our kids are used to hurting themselves and all this mess. It’s just a must for everyone.”

Her daughter entered the system after she started dropping out of school at age 13, her mother said. He did not understand the consequences of his actions and started using drugs. Desperate not to lose custody of her child to the state, Leigh sought help from her daughter’s school.

This teenager has been in and out of juvenile jails, ranging from drug possession charges to theft and fleeing from authorities. Leigh said she liked the choice of a treatment center where her child couldn’t just walk away.

The third mother, Amber, said she argued with juvenile detention officers and judges to get them to understand that her increasingly unruly daughter needed more mental health help before she could be released into foster care or a foster home.

But her teenager was released before the family was ready. He came home, angry at living with his parents’ rules, and destroyed the living room, including punching the TV and throwing objects at the furniture and walls. Amber and her young child were forced to hide in another room while they waited for the authorities to respond.

He said that he believes that sending his daughter to a mandatory treatment facility could have saved his family from a lot of pain.

“She had a place to go,” Amber said of her daughter.

Safe or inpatient treatment

Juliet Summers, executive director of Voices for Children, which works to make the juvenile justice system less punitive and more treatment-oriented, said her group is interested in proposing a state mental health facility for youth.

The organization would oppose the bill if it retains its current language that describes the pilot mental health facility as “secure,” but similar to a juvenile detention center.

“Voice for Children” does not want a new treatment facility located in a closed wing of the detention center. But the organization would be willing to work with Geist on a call for a state mental health treatment center, Summers said.

Summers said the state needs a meaningful youth mental health care system that handles cases consistently.

“If that’s what they want to build, like a regional center for kids, that’s what we’ll help them build,” Summers said.

Three parents the Examiner spoke to said they pushed for a “safe” facility because treatment cannot be optional.

“Our kids are running,” Leigh said.

Summers agreed that the system needs more options. He said a single 16-bed facility could help, but said the state’s needs go deeper than a pilot program could fix.

He wants the state to have an effective hotline that parents can call and get a therapist to intervene long before a young person is taken to court.

Parents interviewed said they had previously called the state’s crisis hotline and seen crisis counselors leave without offering further help if they decided the teen was not an imminent danger to themselves.

“Your child may calm down for a moment,” Tiffany said, “but that doesn’t solve the problem.”

Public hearings on the bills begin Wednesday with the proposed treatment center.

Wayne Bill takes probation away from the judicial branch

The same group of parents who are calling for changes in how the juvenile justice system provides mental health care for teenagers also wants changes in how probation oversees juveniles and adults.

Omaha state Sen. Justin Wayne has introduced House Bill 479, which would move the probation system from the judicial branch to the executive branch and put it under the leadership of a governor. Wayne, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, declined to speak publicly about the bill ahead of a legislative hearing.

But state lawmakers clashed with the judiciary when the legislature tried to assign its usual oversight role to the probation system. Courts have held that when the legislature requires reports and detailed information about the probation of adults or juveniles, it violates the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches.

Cory Steele, the state’s judicial administrator, said the judiciary opposes any transfer of the probation system from the judicial branch to the executive branch.

He said probation in the court system streamlines the way judges make decisions about probation, pre-sentence investigations, and more.

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

The biggest change requested by parents interviewed is the ability to sue the state if something goes wrong for someone on probation. Under the current system, parents can appeal to a probation officer who works in the court system. But the Nebraska Constitution and state law do not 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 almost placed in a home with a felon. Tiffany raised concerns about the man and shared emails showing that court officials were suspicious of him, even though he was right.

She said she later learned that because her child had an individualized education program, his placement was governed by a separate system for children with developmental disabilities that required fewer background checks.

Tiffany also said the lawsuit could force prison officers to comply more with court orders. He said he would have filed a lawsuit if state law had allowed it.

Douglas County Sheriff Aaron Hanson said he supports changes in oversight for probation services. “I think the judicial branch should focus on the judicial branch,” he said.

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