KEARNEY — One Kearney resident feels erecting a fence at Kearney’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center only has made some teens more violent.
“Now they’re more desperate to escape. They’ve got to get more violent to give themselves more time to escape and get up and over that fence,” said Leigh Hessel at a public meeting Thursday before the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Committee.
DHHS oversees the YRTC for teenage males in Kearney and the facility for teenage girls in Geneva. In July, the state spent $700,000 to erect a 10-foot-high chain-link fence around the facility.
Since being erected, several teens have escaped.
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Hessel’s partner has worked at YRTC at 2802 30th Ave. for five years and has been assaulted three times in the last few months while working the night shift. The staffer, who Hessel didn’t name, has suffered bruises near her spine, had to have knee surgery because of a work-related injury, and in August was beat up twice leaving her with a black eye and symptoms of a concussion.
The staffer is scared to go to work and suffers post-traumatic stress disorder, but needs to work because of the benefits.
“She dreads going to work. She’s always in fear,” said Hessel.
If Buffalo County Sheriff Neil Miller had his druthers about the fence it would have been built differently.
“If I would’ve built a fence to keep people in, it wouldn’t look like that fence,” he said.
If state officials wanted a fence, that didn’t resemble a correctional facility, Miller said they could’ve added an inward facing barrier to keep teens from climbing over the top.
“I heard just the other day that’s the ‘staff stopper’ fence,” he said. The crowd of about 60 laughed.
The debate both for and against a fence has been a long one. Tami Moore of Kearney has publicly spoken out against the fence in the past and did again Thursday.
“The fence was one of those things of doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons,” said Moore, who is a member of the Kearney City Council. She’s also a professor of family studies and program director at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
The state failed to do their job, Moore said, by not conducting a focus study to look at human development and behavioral issues associated with fencing at the facility. She also questioned if staff members were in place to understand child and adolescent development and human behavioral issues,
Moore referenced a study about a psychological concept where a mock prison situation was created. Psychologists learned when placed behind bars people responded in more violent aggressive ways.
Teens are no different.
“Trap an adolescent male, and now females, and they will feel the need to problem-solve themselves out of that situation. So the fence is really more of a challenge to them than it is a deterrent. We’ve seen that with the breakouts since it has been up,” she said.
Moore also questioned the state leadership about creating YRTC’s rehabilitative programs. The more violent teens, she said, shouldn’t be in the same general population as other teens, and to help them will require a much more sophisticated program with highly trained personnel.