Retiring superintendent transformed treatment of juvenile offenders

Retiring superintendent transformed treatment of juvenile offenders

URBANA — At a recent ceremony recognizing Champaign County employees for their years of service, many were excitedly talking about retirements plans.

"I'm the one there sad because I don't want to go," said Connie Kaiser.

After almost four decades of working with children in jail, Champaign County's Juvenile Detention Center superintendent is about to join the ranks of the retired.

It's not her idea.

"I've been fighting cancer for the last six years," said Kaiser who will turn 59 later this month. "My doctor suggested it would probably be the best thing for me to do. I'm sad. I'm going to miss it."

Kaiser has been superintendent of the center for 24 of her 37 years in Champaign County. Her last official day is Dec. 29. A reception in her honor is scheduled for Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m. in the jury assembly room of the courthouse.

Active in statewide detention associations, Kaiser is widely regarded as the go-to person in Illinois on juvenile detention standards,

"She set the standards, really, for safe and secure environments for juveniles who are detained, a very difficult group," said Joe Gordon, director of court services and Kaiser's boss. He has been with the department three years longer than she has and credits her leadership for maintaining Champaign County's "excellent facilities."

Almost 20 years ago, Kaiser was instrumental in convincing the county board that the former juvenile detention center in Urbana had to go.

She considers the construction of the building that opened on Art Bartell Road in east Urbana in 2000 the highlight of her career.

"That building (on Main Street) was not safe. (Now-retired juvenile detention colleague) Bob Schwieter and I spent I don't know how many meetings with the county board trying to make them understand what made it unsafe," she said.

Presiding Judge Tom Difanis, who as state's attorney from 1976 to 1995 handled juvenile prosecutions, agreed that the former facility was destined to bankrupt the county. Its small size, with a capacity of about 12, and the unsafe conditions required juveniles to be boarded in other counties at great expense. The current center can handle 25 children.

"Our facility is incredibly well-run," Difanis said, attributing that to Kaiser. "She is a rock. It's an incredibly difficult job. She handled it with poise, compassion and dedication."

Co-worker Janet Wells, a supervisor in probation, marveled at that dedication.

"The kids have been her life. You make that job what you want to make it. She would go out there at 9 or 10 at night just to see how things were going. I don't know if I could do that," Wells said.

A special bond

Wells, who has been with the county 33 years, called her co-worker an "inspiration." They found a common bond in the curse of cancer.

Wells' late son, Sam Wells, received his cancer diagnosis in 2007 as a teenager. A graduate of St. Thomas More and a Parkland College student, Wells was a standout golfer.

"Connie let Sam work in master control (at the detention center) when he was sick. He loved working out there because it gave him something else to think about besides cancer," she said.

A few years after Wells got his life-changing news, Kaiser received her diagnosis of an aggressive form of breast cancer that has since spread to other parts of her body, including her brain.

"Their bond was that they were fighters and dying was never an option," Wells said of her colleague and her son.

They were the namesakes for a 2013 Relay for Life team — Connie and Sam's Crusaders — that raised $185,000 for cancer research. Mr. Wells succumbed to his cancer in February 2014 at age 25.

The cancer has slowed Kaiser a bit in the last couple of years. But it has also inspired new projects for her detainees.

"I was up at the infusion center at Carle, and they gave me a blanket someone had made," she said.

She went to her colleagues on the Illinois Probation Court Services Association detention committee, which she has chaired for a long number of years, with the idea that locked-up kids could make those blankets. And they have, donating dozens to Carle and other institutions in their home counties such as Veterans Administration facilities and hospitals.

"They enjoy it, and it gives them an opportunity to give back to the community," Kaiser said.

'One in a million'

Blankets are just one idea Kaiser has introduced to engage the children, many of whom have serious anger issues, for the short times most are locked up.

Teresa Zebe, supervisor of juvenile services for the county's probation office, has worked with Kaiser for 32 years and called her a wonderful mentor and boss.

"She's hard-working, loyal. If she has to reprimand you, she's excellent at it, very even-keel, just a pleasure to work with," she said.

Zebe said hundreds of people have toured the butterfly and fruit and vegetable gardens that were established at the center a few years ago with the help of master gardeners and Kaiser. Whatever isn't eaten at the center has been donated to other needy agencies.

Zebe noted that Kaiser is always "thinking outside the box" of ways to improve the lives of the children who come through the detention center doors. Most are there for physical acts of violence.

Kaiser has linked up with University of Illinois faculty and students to provide many services, from music programs to a state-of-the art library with culturally and age-appropriate materials for the children.

Besides the new building, Kaiser said the other thing she's most proud of in her years is changing the way the staff relates to its charges.

"Instead of using punishment, the way things were managed in the old days, we use positive reinforcement. It makes a difference in the way kids respond to the staff and supervisors," she said.

As for her retirement plans, Kaiser said they depend on medical expenses. She's trying now to get in a clinical trial that she described as very expensive. Recently, her cancer treatment was put on hold because of a bad reaction to the medicine. She simply doesn't feel very well right now.

She will join her husband, Brian Kaiser, who is already retired from the Illinois State Water Survey. They have a daughter, Elly Mae Edwards, 28, who lives in Indianapolis and is now in school working toward a profession as a physician's assistant.

"Connie is one in a million. It will be sad to not have her there," Zebe said.

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pattsi wrote on December 11, 2017 at 8:12 am

A tip of the hat to Connie Kaiser.