Calhoun County

No longer a 'juvenile home,' new name reflects new focus for Calhoun County Youth Center

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series. 

Youth staying at the Calhoun County Youth Center get more than a bed, food, and discipline, says Tori Benden, director of the facility formerly known as the Calhoun County Juvenile Home.
“We really focus on structure and consistency,” Benden says. “We provide healthy role models, create self-worth and confidence, and just generally give kids someone they can look up to but also hold them accountable for their behavior.”
To better reflect this wide range of services to young people, the facility was renamed in 2022. In September the building will undergo renovations expected to be completed in November 2024 to better serve the needs of youth from throughout Michigan who stay there.

Sign and window painting inside the Calhoun County Youth CenterThe operating budget for 2023 is $2,621,465, says Lucy Blair, spokesperson for Calhoun County.
About 40 percent of the young people who end up at the Youth Center are from other counties including Barry, Branch, Cheboygan, Grand Traverse, and St. Joseph.

“For revenue that comes in from youth from other counties, this year our Finance Director estimates around $270,000 for 2023, although in general, we've been budgeting lower than that since Covid happened. Pre-covid, it was over $500,000 a year,” Blair says.

Two of the rooms inside the Calhoun County Youth Center which will be remodeled.“They really come from all over,” says Benden of out-county youth who reside at the Youth Center. She has worked for Calhoun County for 20 years and is now in her fifth year as Director of the Youth Center.
Typically, if a juvenile detention facility is at capacity or a youth lives in a county without such a facility, the courts would have to find placement for them at another facility or they would be directed to community-based service options and be sent back into their home, Benden says. She says finding placement in another facility is difficult because of bed and staffing shortages.
“We are very lucky that we do have our own facility,” Benden says. “We get calls every day from other areas.”

Two of the rooms inside the Calhoun County Youth Center which will be remodeled.Kelli Scott, Calhoun County Administrator/Controller, says, “The County recognizes the importance of ensuring our facilities are conducive to supporting our employees and serving the public, in safe, healthy, and effective spaces.  This renovation and expansion of our functionally obsolete Youth Center were a high priority for the Board of Commissioners and County Administration to demonstrate our commitment to the excellent leadership and care offered to youth whose lives we can positively impact.”

When the renovations are completed, the number of beds will increase from 42 to 52 and areas of the building dedicated to youth activities and classroom space will be better suited to serve youth and staff.

The current square footage is 15,117.  The renovations will include 14,824 of new sq. footage, so, the new facility will total 29,941 square feet.

A room inside the Calhoun County Youth Center currently serves as a courtroom and a medical exam room. In the planned remodeling they will be separated.When the facility first opened in 1957 it was designed to serve wayward youth. It did not become a secure lock building until 1980. Benden says it is one of the oldest structures owned and operated by the County and needs upgrades.
“We have a really old building and it’s currently not conducive to safety and security,” she says. “One of the biggest challenges we have in the current building is that it has three levels and the classrooms are on the bottom level. We will be bringing the classrooms now on the bottom level to the first level and the second level will remain the same with the gym and activities area. The basement level will be used by our staff.”
In addition, pod-like modular units will be constructed and located at the end of each of the three wings of the building. These will house rooms for sleeping and dayrooms where staff can conduct group gatherings and interact with residents during their free time.
The facility will remain open and operational during the renovations with a limited number of beds. Benden says the average number of youth residing there was between 32 and 35 per day pre-pandemic. She says COVID-19 created challenges to maintain staffing levels while youth continued to come through the doors.
A room inside the Calhoun County Youth Center currently serves as a courtroom and a medical exam room. In the planned remodeling they will be separated.While hovering between 35 and 45 employees during the pandemic, Benden says she prefers to have a steady staff of 45 which includes youth specialists and on-call personnel available to cover for those on vacation or who are out sick.
Not being at capacity has eased staffing pressures.
“We have not been at capacity for quite some time. There were maybe 12 years when we were right at capacity,” she says. “When I first started here the youth center was pretty full and a lot of youth were sent here. I’ve seen a decline in the last 10 years and more of a focus on community-based services. We don’t want to remove children from their homes unless it’s absolutely necessary. More community-based options for youth are being sought out.”
The residents of the Youth Center
What brings youth to the Youth Center is the committing of a delinquent act or a crime that may range from a probation violation to a crime that’s more assaultive in nature. Benden says the average length of a stay is 17 days for detention and 17 weeks for participation in a small treatment program called EYES (Empowered Youth Experience Success).
Sign and window painting inside the Calhoun County Youth CenterEYES, she says, offers more intensive counseling. While youth are engaged in this program, their parents are encouraged and sometimes required to attend a parenting program that runs the duration of their child’s counseling program. Benden says a small population of residents come from troubled or abusive homes.
“We do work with parents in the EYES program. As far as the detention program, we don’t have any formal contact with parents,” Benden says. “Most residents will return to a parent or guardian with a small population being placed in a residential home.”
The Youth Center staff facilitates visitations between youth and parents or guardians but doesn’t do any formal counseling or preparation for a youth's return to their home.
Painted stones ring a tree in front of the Calhoun County Youth Center.“We do have some parents who visit, but we also have some residents who don’t get any visitors,” Benden says. “This is heartbreaking for our staff.”
This staff includes certified Special Education teachers contracted through the Calhoun County Intermediate School District, a nutritionist with Michigan State University Extension, and someone affiliated with Sexual Assault Services who teaches the youth about healthy relationships and how to build them.
At any given time, the ratio of female to male youth is 25/75.
A residential bedroom of the Calhoun County Youth Center which will be remodeled.Among the other programs they’re involved with is one focused on cognitive behavioral therapy which teaches them how thinking affects their thoughts which affects their actions, Benden says, “and we’re teaching them how to change that thinking.”
The majority of the time, the programs and services offered do keep youth from making a return appearance to the Youth Center. When a youth does reappear, Benden says there’s a certain amount of disappointment, but also an opportunity to “rebuild that child” which the particular youth readily takes advantage of.
Each youth, regardless of the number of stays at the facility, follows a schedule that begins with taking care of their appearance, making their bed, and eating breakfast before heading to school which is offered even in the summer.
Sign and window painting inside the Calhoun County Youth Center“Every hour is structured and planned for them. If they’re not in school, they’re doing group counseling, playing games, or interacting with other residents,” Benden says.

“I think there’s a negative aura around youth and detention facilities and youth who commit crimes. I really want people to know that what we do here is very structured. The kids aren’t just sitting around playing cards and talking to each other. Generally, the kids are very well-behaved because of rules and structure. They aren’t bad kids, they’ve just made a poor choice.”
She says the Juvenile Center could really use more community-based mentoring programs where kids have mentors and opportunities to do things with them. Kids in the community at large, she says, would benefit from having access to a center where they could engage in structured activities.
The idea that County leadership is willing to allocate funds for its youth who find themselves at the Juvenile Center and increase the facility’s annual $2 million budget, says a lot, Benden says.
“The County really values kids and children and is really making things happen here to make it the best facility possible,” she says.

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