Service for youths may lose its home this fall
CHAMPAIGN — A service that helps troubled children between the ages of 10 and 17 could lose its home as soon as October.
Since September, the Youth Assessment Center has been helping young people and their parents who come through the front door at 802 N. Randolph St., whether they do so voluntarily, with a police officer or as a result of a referral from school.
The center has been leasing space from the school district, in the former Champaign Unit 4 Curriculum Center. While the service pays no money for using the facility, it is responsible for utility and repair costs.
"We have a lease through October with the school district, and we have been told it is very likely we will be released from the lease in October," said Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz, a supporter of the center.
Unit 4 spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart said the board has not yet officially voted to sell the curriculum center building. "But it is part of their discussion as they look to put some properties back on the tax rolls and also funding in the future," Stuart said.
Rietz, Champaign Police Chief Anthony Cobb and other supporters of the Youth Assessment Center spoke to the school board this week to make an appeal to allow it to stay at the site — or at least delay the sale of the property.
"We went to the board to plead our case," Rietz said. "We are hopeful that the school district will continue to be a partner with us. We would like for them to extend the lease to give us time to find another space or another funding source as we continue to grow this wonderful organization."
Cameron Moore, CEO of the Champaign Regional Planning Commission, said the center receives referrals not only from the justice system, but also from schools, the Boys and Girls Club and other sources.
"We have already dealt with 392 kids in five months," said Moore, whose commission is responsible for the center's day-to-day operations. "Before we had the Youth Assessment Center, when we ran our court diversion program, over the course of 12 months, we generally worked with about 500 kids. Here we are, five months into this, and we have already touched the lives of nearly 400 kids. I would expect, by the end of the year, we will probably see well over 1,000 kids."
The center's case managers evaluate youths based on their history and current problem. They then try to figure out the best place to get those children and the children's families help from outside of the court system.
"This has been a huge treasure within the community in the short time it has been in existence," Cobb said. "Speaking on behalf of all the local police chiefs, we all support this center wholeheartedly. We recognize it has a fantastic opportunity to allow young people to get themselves back on track."
Rietz said that many of the adults in the criminal justice system were once delinquents in the juvenile justice system.
Open six days a week, the center is designed to keep troubled youths from becoming troubled adults, she said.
"We have created this space where young people who make bad decisions, who break the law and who are in crisis can be brought — not to a locked facility, not to the courthouse and not to the police station, but rather to a neutral space that is comfortable and welcoming and open," she said. "They can be assessed and talked to. Their needs can be met, and they can be sent off in the right direction to do community work, to peer court, to mediation and all kinds of opportunities to stay out of the court system."
"It is so very important to preserve this space," Rietz said. "We have just started this venture, and we have truly seen great progress."
Added Cobb, speaking to the school board: "If you can, give us more time, so we can make alternative plans."
School board member Lynn Stuckey said the district had planned to sell the Randolph Street property all along. The deal with the Youth Assessment Center was only a short-term arrangement, she said.
"When this was brought forward last year, Dr. (Judy) Wiegand and I had several discussions about what was going to happen downtown with that building," Stuckey said. "Downtown is booming, and that property is currently underdeveloped.
"Frankly, I don't see that building staying there when it is turned over to private hands. I think that anything that goes into that space will be at least two to six stories tall. And it will probably rent for a very pretty penny."
Selling it, Stuckey said, "will actually benefit the community."
"Right now, since we own that property, there is no property tax being generated on that space. Absolutely none," she told Rietz and Cobb at Monday's board meeting. "Long-term, we have to do something with that space. I have no issues with you (the Youth Assessment Center) being there. But when we wrote that lease, it was also supposed to be conveyed to you that we would probably be selling that space within a year or two. And if that message was not conveyed to you, my apologies.
"As a public body, it is our responsibility to get the best return for our taxpayers."