An 'emergency room' for troubled youth

Facility's goal is to keep kids out of court system

CHAMPAIGN — Any parent or adult who has dealt with a willful, obstinate or just plain unpleasant adolescent can identify with the need to find help that can't always be found in the parenting handbook.

In Champaign County, there is now an emergency room, so to speak, for 'tween and teenage ugliness.

It's the Youth Assessment Center at 802 N. Randolph St., C, a place where any child between the ages of 10 and 17 who's in a crisis or even a long-term slump can go to find help.

"Triage" is how program manager Rebecca Woodard describes what case managers are doing with children and their parents who come through the front door either voluntarily, with a police officer, or as a result of a referral from school.

"We're a connection service. We don't provide the service," she explained.

The center, open six days a week, features two case managers on duty. Tuesday through Saturday, the center is open until midnight, and on Mondays, hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's closed on Sunday.

The case managers evaluate the youth based on his or her history and the current problem, and try to figure out the best place to get that child and the child's family help outside of the court system.

"If kids are not in trouble with the law, we are not putting them into the system," said Darlene Kloeppel, community services director for the Regional Planning Commission.

Since 2009, the RPC has provided "station adjustments" for all Champaign County police departments at its former offices at the Brookens Administrative Center in east Urbana. A station adjustment is what the name implies: an adjustment of some negative behavior that requires formal attention but is not bad enough to warrant charging a child with a crime and getting him before a judge.

Decades ago, that involved having a kid wash cars at the police station or pick up trash on a Saturday or some similar activity monitored by a police officer. Today, the process is a bit more formal and overseen by professional social workers who dole out the consequences and try to find out what's causing a child to misbehave. They follow up to make sure that the child has carried out his consequence and is getting services.

While washing a police car might still be a possible punishment, other components of station adjustments include peer courts where teens judge other teens, mediation, and restorative justice that stresses an offender making amends with the victim.

All those services will now be done at the assessment center near downtown Champaign.

"The change isn't really the location," Kloeppel said. "It's the speed with which we see people. Rather than setting up an appointment for later, you can talk to the youth and the parent at the time about possible consequences and set them up with services, be it mediation or whatever."

"The idea is to shorten the time frame," added State's Attorney Julia Rietz, who has long advocated for such a one-stop clearinghouse. "If you wait to address an issue with a kid for weeks or months, how many other issues arise? We're more likely to get people to accept services if we start the process when they are in the midst of a crisis as opposed to when the crisis has died down."

She and Kloeppel stressed that the center's purpose is to keep children out of the court system, not widen the dragnet.

"The idea is to provide an opportunity for support before things become a criminal justice issue. They are taking runaways, for example," Rietz said.

Champaign Deputy Police Chief Joe Gallo said that is a great benefit for officers who can drop the runaway or curfew violator off at a safe place and return to the street to deal with more serious crime rather than waiting for a relative to show up or trying to find an alternate place for the child to stay.

Nita Collins, one of the case managers at the center, said police officers who bring children in are asked to fill out an intake form that takes them about 10 minutes. They can then be on their way and the case managers take over the evaluation.

Although the majority of the children seen at the center are brought by police, the center welcomes anyone.

"We opened on Sept. 23 and have received 90 referrals to date," Kloeppel said on Nov. 6. "Of those, five were referred by schools, three by other agencies, five were self-referrals, and 77 were brought by police."

Of the 77 cases initiated by police, 62 had been arrested and put on station adjustments. The other 15 were not charged with offenses, she said.

The children being referred by schools need services that they can't get in school, explained Orlando Thomas, Champaign schools' director of achievement and student services.

"We won't refer a ton of students there unless they're not responding to our on-site interventions," he said.

Thomas agrees that Champaign County is a resource-rich community, but that doesn't mean everyone knows where to turn for a certain need.

"There are some community resources that I'm not aware of that the case managers are. As we refer students, that takes the guesswork out of it," he said.

Just like county jail officials and police, the school district has seen an increase in students affected by mental health issues, he observed.

"The school district doesn't diagnose. This resource is going to be huge for those students who have identified or unidentified needs. It is going to be a key component to supporting that at-risk population that we simply cannot support," he said.

Part of the added responsibilities at the center for the case managers will be more intensive follow-up.

High-risk children will be followed weekly for six months while low-risk children get followed monthly for four months, Woodard said.

That means getting on the phone to the agency to which a referral is made and finding out if the child came in for services and how they are working. And if he didn't show up, it means calling the parents to find out why. Collins said it might be something as easily explainable as not having a car to get to an appointment, which the case managers can deal with.

Rietz said on the long-range wish list for the center is a vehicle for that purpose.

Small portion of sales tax goes to help youth center

Fifteen years ago this month, Champaign County voters agreed to a quarter-cent sales tax on goods in order to pay for public safety projects. Collection of the tax began in July 1999, and over the years, that money has paid for the Champaign County Courthouse and the Juvenile Detention Center.

Of that quarter-cent, 5 percent was earmarked for programs aimed at keeping juveniles out of the justice system and those already in it from coming back.

In late 2005, the Champaign County Board entered into an agreement with the Champaign County Mental Health Board to be the gatekeeper, so to speak, for that juvenile delinquency prevention money. The board evaluates needs and tries to find worthy programs to serve young people at risk of getting in trouble.

The idea has always been that it's better to invest in services for children on the front end rather than to pay for jails to lock them up.

For the 2013-2014 budget year, the Mental Health Board has decided that the Youth Assessment Center and the Parenting with Love and Limits program, which has been offered in the county since 2009, should receive that 5 percent of the quarter-cent sales tax.

Darlene Kloeppel of the Regional Planning Commission is the numbers woman whose job includes writing applications for state and federal grants.

Of the $332,828 annual cost to run the assessment center, about 72 percent, or $240,612, is coming from the quarter-cent sales tax money earmarked for juveniles. The center has five-and-a-quarter full-time staff equivalents, Kloeppel said.

The rest of the money to pay for the center is a combination of federal grant money funneled to the state then to the RPC, and contributions from the cities of Champaign, Urbana and Rantoul.

While the center will serve any Champaign County youth between the ages of 10 and 17, it was located in Champaign because the majority of the children helped are from that city.

The building belongs to Unit 4, which is allowing the center to use it rent-free the first year as that agency's in-kind donation.

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