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Several northern Illinois juvenile detention centers non-compliant in education & discipline

Areas of noncompliance detailed in 2023 Winnebago County Juvenile Detention Center Inspection Report from Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice
Areas of noncompliance detailed in 2023 Winnebago County Juvenile Detention Center Inspection Report from Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice

When kids are charged with a crime, while presumed innocent, they’re sometimes detained at county juvenile detention centers while they wait for their case to be resolved. The centers are mandated to provide education. Every day, there are between 400-500 youth in county detention centers in Illinois.

At the Winnebago County Juvenile Detention Center, youth reported that staff would shut off water access in a cell for extended periods as a precaution to disruptive behavior. Shutting off water in one room affected the ones next to them, so a neighbor’s behavior could limit others' water access too.

Youth were sometimes confined in their cell for multiple days when state regulations limit confinement to a maximum of four hours. One kid only attended school at the center twice in May because of “behavioral reasons,” according to the most recent Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice inspection report.

These are a few reasons the Winnebago County Juvenile Detention Center was classified as "non-compliant" in the areas of education, discipline, & mental health services in the 2023 inspection audit.

It’s a 48-bed facility and one of 15 county-run juvenile detention centers in Illinois. The youth are typically between 15 and 17 years old, and the average length of stay is about a month.

Debbie Jarvis is the director of court services for the 17th Judicial Circuit Court, which covers Boone & Winnebago counties. Her role encompasses several divisions, including the detention center.

“We have a fair amount of kids who may be detained and then at the time of their detention hearing, they are released. So, that could be within two days," she said. "But we have kids who are in our detention facility for a very long period of time who might be pending on adult charges, and some of those kids could be in a detention facility for over a year even.”

With education, they follow a normal schedule. Five days a week with at least five hours of instruction per day.

They have three teachers and a full-time aide, who are employees of Rockford Public Schools. But kids at the center are coming from many school districts across Winnebago and Boone counties.

And with so many kids coming in and out of class all of the time, it makes curriculum complicated. Jarvis says since this fall, they’ve been collaborating more with Rockford Public Schools administrators to improve their education services. Administrators at Rockford Public Schools declined an interview request from WNIJ.

Jarvis says they’re also trying to completely change their approach to discipline to limit long-term confinement, which could mean missing classes. On the day of the Department of Juvenile Justice audit, nine students were marked absent because of behavior.

“What we have developed with the school district is that we have those kids not in the classroom, but working on educational material outside of the classroom," she said. "So, the teachers are developing packets of educational material and what we're working toward with the school district is making sure that those packets are as meaningful as they can be.”

Jarvis says they had some inconsistencies with marking some students as absent who were present.

The Winnebago County center also received funding to hire three full-time therapists as of December. Jarvis says they’re now leaning on mental health services instead of long-term confinement.

The LaSalle County Juvenile Detention Center is a much smaller facility. It has only 16 beds. That facility has been deemed non-compliant with discipline and education for the past two years.

The 2023 Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice inspection audit notes several cases of 24-hour confinement. And since the facility required youth to sleep in just shorts and t-shirts, many youths reported feeling cold at night.

The center has one full-time teacher. They have an endorsement to teach Kindergarten - 9th grade. So, because youth at the center are typically older than that, most services they provide are outside of that endorsement. The state recommends the center hire someone with the correct endorsement.

The audit also reports no clear services provided to students with Individualized Education Plans or IEPS and little collaboration with Mendota High School -- where youth are enrolled while at the center. Administrators at Mendota High School did not respond to WNIJ's interview request.

Students have classes, write story reports based on the news, have physical education, and use Edgenuity-- an online learning platform for credit recovery if students are behind.

Chuck Goodwin is director of court services for the 13th Judicial Circuit, covering LaSalle, Grundy, & Bureau counties.

He says they’re also trying to step up mental health support, including bringing in a caseworker during the school day.

“[What] we're working towards is the last hour for two of those days when we normally have structure hour -- he would be running a cognitive behavior program," said Goodwin.

He says the center is working hard to resolve their special education issue and they’re trying to hire a paraprofessional educator, but are having trouble filling the position.

Starting in 2025, youth housed at county detention centers in Illinois will have another layer of oversight. A recent state lawextended the jurisdiction of the Office of the Independent Juvenile Ombudsman to cover county detention centers. Previously, it just covered juvenile prisons.

Jennifer Vollen-Katz is Executive Director of theJohn Howard Association, a prison watchdog group that advocated for the legislation.

“It is really about giving youth someplace to go to access their rights," she said, "so that they can go outside of the department that's holding them in custody to seek recourse or report abuse, neglect, or anything else that they might feel unable or uncomfortable reporting within the agency that they are in the custody of."

The office is also built to help the families and loved ones of detained youth find information.

Vollen-Katz says that no matter how long anyone is detained, whether it's for hours, months or even longer, they should have a place to be heard and have their rights respected.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.