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Regional center’s goal is to keep offenders from having any more victims

December 23, 2018

Sitting on the northeast edge of town, the Norfolk Regional Center operates outside of the public consciousness — for the most part.

That is, unless you’re one of over 200 employees at the sex offender treatment facility or one of the 88 current patients.

And though the community’s response to the former mental health care facility being re-purposed over the years to its current usage has been mixed, the regional center provides a valuable public service.

That’s the perspective of Kristine Boe-Simmons, the clinical program director and interim facility operating manager at the center.

Boe-Simmons, who has worked at the regional center for 36 years, said there have always been sex offenders housed at the facility. But she said the transition from a mental health care facility to those who the regional center serves today was “different.”

“There are fewer people who have a major mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but we have always worked with people who have had personal disorders, which most of our patients now do have,” Boe-Simmons said.

The transition was an opportunity to keep her job while learning different skills and a different treatment approach, she said.

Today, the purpose of the Norfolk Regional Center is two-fold.

“One is to work with people who have sexually offended to help them have no more victims. And the other is to help them learn to have a better quality of life themselves,” Boe-Simmons said.

But then, of course, there’s the issue of public safety.

Most of the men at the Norfolk Regional Center — which is an all-male facility — have served a term in the Nebraska prison system for a sexual offense.

Once their sentence ended, these men were evaluated and civilly committed by a mental health board that determined they needed in-patient treatment.

Boe-Simmons said some of the patients come from a juvenile sex offender program, from which they have aged out. Others were permitted to go into out-patient treatment, but they failed to comply at some point and were then sent to the regional center.

“If we weren’t here, (the sex offenders) would not be in treatment. Our goal, really, is to help them to have no more victims,” she said.

A large portion of the sex offender treatment program focuses on therapy, both in group settings and individually.

“They also have recreational therapy and occupational therapy, because learning healthy leisure skills is an important quality of life. But it also helps the person not to re-offend, to have a balanced life,” Boe-Simmons said.

Patients work to recognize what the cycle of their sexually assaultive behavior looks like and how to manage any risk factors they have in order to learn control.

The length of a particular patient’s stay varies, though the majority of men who “graduate” to the Lincoln Regional Center stay in Norfolk for about 2½-3 years. The longest a patient has stayed in Norfolk was about 10 years.

The regional center in Lincoln is the next step for patients who successfully complete the program in Norfolk.

“At the Lincoln Regional Center, they continue that treatment process and work with (patients) on re-integrating them back into the community through a transition program,” Boe-Simmons said.

Getting those men back into society is the ultimate goal, and Boe-Simmons said she holds out hope that no one has to be at the regional center for their entire life.

“I have worked with people that I have thought they might not ever change, and then they have at some point. They really worked our program and went to Lincoln and got out,” she said.

Research indicates that recidivism rates among sex offenders drops when they’ve gone through treatment. Keeping sex offenders locked up forever isn’t an ideal option, Boe-Simmons said.

“I think that we need to try to rehabilitate people. And they are people. They have made tremendous mistakes. But I think that we need to keep working with them and help them to learn from that and not to do that,” she said.

Besides, the option of locking up a whole group of people forever isn’t really realistic, but it is very expensive, she said.

The Norfolk Regional Center is always looking to improve their program in order to help the patients there change. And they are always concerned with safety and security, Boe-Simmons said.

“We have a lot of safety mechanisms in place. We have a new fence around our perimeter that helps with any community concerns about security. It also allows us an opportunity to work with our patients to have some leisure skills outside.”

The 208 full-time and 20 “as needed” employees at the regional center ensure there are always more staff than patients. The sex offender treatment program currently has 76 patients, and there are also 12 patients in a mental health unit, which opened in February.

“We have psychiatrists and psychologists, social workers and therapists, nurses, LPNs. Everybody who works here plays a really important role — from the kitchen who makes really good food, the people who keep the floors sparkly and shiny and our security specialists who do an excellent job observing the patients and helping them to learn to follow the rules,” Boe-Simmons said.

In fact, the Norfolk Regional Center is not only a good employer for the city, but it offers great benefits, she said.

“There are a lot of people who have an interest in criminal justice or social work or therapy fields that this is just a really excellent place to come and work and learn about different disorders and to work with a real multi-disciplinary team.

“The patients can be challenging, for sure, but I think the community is safe, I really do.”

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