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Proposal could expand mental health services to Nebraska juveniles, instead of detention

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Proposal could expand mental health services to Nebraska juveniles, instead of detention

Feb 27, 2024 | 6:45 am ET
By Zach Wendling
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Proposal could expand mental health services to Nebraska juveniles, instead of detention
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State Sen. Carolyn Bosn of Lincoln. Feb. 22, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A former prosecutor presented an amended bill Friday that could expand mental health services to Nebraska juveniles in need of immediate and urgent protection.

Proposal could expand mental health services to Nebraska juveniles, instead of detention
State Sen. Carolyn Bosn of Lincoln. Feb. 23, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Legislative Bill 1208, as introduced by State Sen. Carolyn Bosn of Lincoln, would allow juveniles to be detained if it is a “matter of immediate and urgent necessity for the protection of such juvenile.” 

At a Judiciary Committee hearing, Bosn instead presented an amendment for such youths to access evaluations, clinical staff and treatment resources, among other services.

“Having an individual who is a juvenile be detained is not my goal,” Bosn said.

Nebraska should support youths suffering from mental health crises — such as those at risk of suicide — but who do not qualify for a psychiatric residential treatment facility and are not good candidates for being sent home, Bosn explained.

She is also working to address concerns of who would pay for the services.

“I don’t have the perfect answer for that,” Bosn said. “But I don’t think the answer is no one should pay for them, let’s just not do them, take the kid home and hope things go well.”

More resources needed

Proposal could expand mental health services to Nebraska juveniles, instead of detention
Nebraska State Court Administrator Corey Steel. Feb. 23, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

State Court Administrator Corey Steel, who oversees the administrative operations of Nebraska’s court system, testified in support of Bosn’s amendment. 

Steel said LB 1208 as originally proposed was not the right solution in pursuit of Bosn’s goals. The proposed changes would apply when a juvenile is suffering from a severe health crisis  andi needs support, including emergency protective custody.

“We just need more, additional resources,” Steel said.

Chief Deputy William Rinn of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said at the hearing that his office is generally in support of LB 1208, and the amendment is “nothing but an improvement.”

“Our ultimate concern is this: protection of the juveniles,” Rinn said. “If it comes by means of an amendment that they get mental health services, that doesn’t change our view of our support.”

Debra Tighe-Dolan, deputy Douglas County attorney, testified in support of LB 1208, as introduced, on behalf of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association.

Proposal could expand mental health services to Nebraska juveniles, instead of detention
Debra Tighe-Dolan, deputy Douglas County attorney. Feb. 23, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

She said protective custody could apply for youths who continuously run away and who are vulnerable to adults or older juveniles. She said risks include sexual assault, child sex trafficking, gang involvement, criminal activity and a lack of education or health care.

“Some of them don’t realize that just going and bunking on somebody’s sofa can lead to something so nefarious that they can’t get themselves out of,” Tighe-Dolan said.

‘Changing the environment’

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha questioned why the state should return to a system that did not work previously. Lawmakers voted to prevent protective detention of juveniles in 2018. 

Rinn said he hopes the wraparound services included in Bosn’s amendment help facilities and programs catch up; McKinney said more facilities and programs have been developed.

Proposal could expand mental health services to Nebraska juveniles, instead of detention
State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha. Feb. 23, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“But one thing that hasn’t changed is the environment where the kids are coming from,” McKinney said. “I think we can’t forget that. If we don’t invest in changing the environment, it doesn’t matter if we go back to this, stay with this or change this.”

McKinney said he wondered if county attorneys had ever supported bills that would “fundamentally change the environment in which these kids have grown up in.” He also suggested a study into the juvenile justice system for possible improvements.

‘Same page’ to help juveniles

Jennifer Houlden, chief deputy of the juvenile justice division in the Lancaster County Public Defenders Office, testified neutral on behalf of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.

Houlden said the association is strongly opposed to LB 1208 as introduced but appreciates clarification in the amendment that the bill is intended to support mental health.

This can already be done, however, Houlden said. She pointed to a state law that stipulates juvenile courts in each county have jurisdiction over juveniles who are mentally ill or dangerous. The statute defines this as a “substantial risk of serious harm” to another person or oneself within the near future.

Proposal could expand mental health services to Nebraska juveniles, instead of detention
Jennifer Houlden, chief deputy of the juvenile justice division in the Lancaster County Public Defenders Office. Feb. 23, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“That section is virtually never used by county attorneys,” Houlden said. “I don’t know why, but they don’t use it.”

Adding the language of Bosn’s amendment to other sections of the law could perhaps capture a wider breadth of youths, Houlden added, including those not subject to detention.

Juliet Summers, executive director of the Voices for Children of Nebraska, also provided neutral testimony, in support of the amendment’s ideas but opposed to LB 1208 as written.

Summers said with a little more time and opportunity to work on the amendment and see where it fits into existing laws, Voices of Children of Nebraska might be able to “fully support” Bosn’s bill.

“I truly believe we are on the same page of getting help for those young people rather than just turning back to what options we have had in the past,” Summers said.

The committee took no immediate action on LB 1208.