Champaign County’s Connie Kaiser Recognized as Juvenile Justice Champion

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: George W. Timberlake, Chair
June 18, 2013 312-793-4180

Champaign County’s Connie Kaiser Recognized as Juvenile Justice Champion

SPRINGFIELD, IL – 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. “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.”

After graduation from Eastern Illinois University in 1980, Kaiser began her career at the center as a part-time detention officer and became a full-time detention 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 lock-up. Connie understands that, and has been a voice for humane, respectful and effective treatment of youth in secure confinement.

“Champaign County has led the way with improved screening of youth for mental health issues and addictions – key factors to identify what services are needed to help them most – and by connecting the youth and their families to those services,” he said. And just as connecting youth to services is important, so is creating relationships among young people, families and communities. Connie and her staff have made tremendous strides in doing that too.”

On a typical day, 17 youth between the ages of 13 and 17 are in custody at the center. Most are boys, but girls make up about 25 percent of the youth.

“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 20years 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,” she continued. “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.”

Community partners include the Music Department and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois.

• Through a Music Department course, UI students facilitate fine arts and musical activities to the youth at the center 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 GSLIS 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,” she said.

Community service projects have included making fleece blankets for residents of the Alzheimer’s unit of the Champaign County Nursing Home and making placemats 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.

“Connie has been a steady voice over many years as juvenile justice fads have come and gone – including failed approaches that emphasized locking kids up and treating them like adult criminals. Even when it is was not easy or popular, Connie has always spoken for up for the young people in her care and reminded us all that they are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect and caring and compassion. When Connie talks about her work, you can clearly hear that she cares about the well-being of young people who pass through the detention center she manages. But you can hear just as clearly that she also cares deeply about her staff, and about the communities they share. Timberlake said. “She is a champion, not just for the children, but for all of us.”

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About the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission

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, non-profits, delinquency prevention experts and others.