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Nebraska youth advocacy groups are asking Chief Justice Mike Heavican and Court Administrator Corey Steel to come up with an emergency plan for the impact of COVID-19 on youths in detention and residential treatment centers and group homes. 

They want the chief justice and Steel to instruct judges and probation officers to immediately halt new admissions to juvenile detention and correctional facilities.

And they want them to remove youths from these facilities whenever feasible. The advocates suggested removing youths who have COVID-19 symptoms; chronic illnesses, such as asthma or diabetes; other serious illnesses; or those in need of medical care.

They also recommend using commitment to youth rehabilitation and treatment centers, detention or incarceration only if that youth is a substantial and immediate safety risk to others. Children in state custody or in out-of-home care who can return to the community safely should be sent home, they said.

The advocates, including Voices for Children in Nebraska, ACLU of Nebraska, RISE (a prison reentry program), Nebraska Appleseed and juvenile attorney Christine Henningsen, said in a letter sent Thursday to Heavican and Steel that public health experts have warned that people who are in enclosed spaces are uniquely vulnerable to the outbreak.

"COVID-19 spread quickly in enclosed spaces such as cruise ships and nursing homes, and it will spread just as quickly in detention centers, prisons and jails," they said.

Infection control is a challenge, they said. Even in individual cells, ventilation is often inadequate. 

In addition to those requests, they also asked Heavican and Steel to: 

* Ensure communication to youths on prevention, access to medical care and access to community-based support.

* Create transitional plans for youths released from custody and congregate care to ensure continued access to housing, care and basic needs.

* Reform probation requirements to eliminate in-person meetings as much as possible and allow youths to travel to access medical care.

“Nebraska youth who are in custody are going to have real trouble practicing proactive measures to keep themselves safe," said Juliet Summers, Voices for Children policy coordinator for child welfare and juvenile justice. "There’s also risk of increased harm if we cut off critical social support in the name of prevention. This unprecedented moment calls on all of us to come together and urgently find solutions that will protect our youth, their families, and the staff who work to support them.” 

Steel did not respond to a request for comment on the letter, and as of late Thursday afternoon, Summers said she had not received a response to the letter from either Steel or Heavican. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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