SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission has named Connie Kaiser, longtime superintendent of the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center, as the 2013 recipient of the commission's Juvenile Justice Champion Award.
"For more than three decades, Connie Kaiser has helped improve the lives of every child and every family member to walk into the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center, and her innovative programming and involvement of community volunteers has made the Champaign County center a model for every other detention center in Illinois," said George W. Timberlake, commission chairman.
"Some detention facilities are seen as a place where kids go to cool off or get 'scared straight.' Under Connie's leadership, kids have a chance to begin to turn their lives around with the help of Connie, her staff and many volunteers," he said.
A 1980 graduate of Eastern Illinois University, Kaiser began her career at the center as a part-time detention officer and became a full-time staff member in 1981. She was named superintendent in 1994.
"Detention centers are not necessarily the best choice to help kids in trouble with the law, as many youngsters will respond better when kept in the family home, and community-based services are used to help change inappropriate behaviors and involve the family," Timberlake said. "But when kids in crisis are removed from the family home, detention centers should be more than a safe lockup. Connie understands that, and has been a voice for humane, respectful and effective treatment of youth in secure confinement."
On a typical day, 17 youth between the ages of 13 and 17 are in custody at the center. Most are boys; girls make up about 25 percent of those detained.
"There have been tremendous changes over the years that I have worked in juvenile detention," Kaiser said. "The physical plant of our facility for the first 20 years that I spent working was an old, outdated building that was really not conducive to providing for the needs of youth. In 2000, we moved to a new facility, and things have tremendously improved since that move."
"The new facility is much safer, and there is much more space for programs and activities. It has allowed us to have community people and outside agencies working with our youth daily. The community has become much more engaged with our facility, and we have actually become a partner in the large continuum of services in Champaign County," Kaiser said.
Community partners include the music department and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois.
UI students lead detainees in musical activities one day a week.
"The UI students are extremely creative with their lesson plans each week," Kaiser said. "This program has enabled our youth to recognize their creative abilities and has helped them develop their interest in music and fine arts."
The UI library students are working with center staff and community organizations to create a model for building and maintaining a library of books to appeal to the youth. They also teach a popular class to help improve writing, and some of the youth's writings have been published and entered in contests.
"Youth demonstrate interest and a real propensity for reading during the time spent at the Juvenile Detention Center, and it makes good sense to seize an opportunity to introduce them to reading as an enjoyable, beneficial means of enhancing their literacy while also broadening their knowledge about the world outside of their own," Kaiser said.
Community service projects have included making fleece blankets for residents of the Alzheimer's unit of the Champaign County Nursing Home and making place mats for nursing home residents.
"We have several other programs and groups that are guided by restorative justice practices and actually connect youth and their families with opportunities to continue their relationship and work with the provider following their return home," Kaiser said.
The Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission is the federally mandated state advisory group to the governor, the General Assembly and the Illinois Department of Human Services.
Appointed by the governor, the 25 commission members come from a variety of backgrounds in the juvenile justice field, including law enforcement, locally elected officials, mental health experts, nonprofits, delinquency prevention experts and others.
For more information, visit the commission's website at http://ijjc.illinois.gov.