DuPage center opens to help children involved in custody disputes
By Hank Beckman For Sun-Times Media October 24, 2013 10:46AM
The ribbon-cutting shows (left to right) Judge Rodney Equi, Sheila Murphy-Russell, Mary Keating (both listed as Director of Community Services) County Board Chairman Dan Cronin and board members Bob Larsen and James Healy. | submitted
Updated: October 24, 2013 11:29AM
With the DuPage County Family Center moving into a new facility on the county’s government campus in Wheaton, area children are getting a friendlier place to adjust to family separation.
“This facility will provide a safe, conflict-free child environment,” County Board Chairman Dan Cronin told about 75 local officials this week as the new facility officially opened.
The Family Center has been in operation since June, but it was housed in a strip mall on the north side of Wheaton. The new facility is adjacent to the new Jeanine Nicarico Children’s Advocacy Center, with an enclosed walkway connecting the two buildings.
The project’s cost, combined with that of the Nicarico Center, comes to $5.6 million, with $500,000 coming from federal Community Development Block Grant funds.
The main activity at the center is to provide a safe place for parental visitations with children, which can often become tense situations.
Separate entrances and waiting rooms accommodate each parent and their children. One waiting room is designed for very young children and the other for those slightly older.
The rooms feed into a hallway with walls sporting flowers and warm colors to make youngsters feel welcome and safe, county officials said. They can even play with Ollie, a 7-year old pet guinea pig who was donated to the center by an attorney practicing family law.
DuPage Director of Community Services Sheila Murphy-Russell noted that divorces involving custody issues run the gamut from parents who try and works things out together and do their best to make the transition seamless for children to those who literally cannot be in the same room with each other.
Delicate situations call for what those in the business of family support have come to call “neutral exchanges” of custody.
The makeup of the families themselves are changing, Murphy-Russell said, with more than 40 percent of the children that the center deals with coming from relationships that don’t involve a formal marriage.
“We have a strong focus on non-married parents,” she said.
Although no statistics are available, Murphy-Russell said that an increasing number of the cases ending up at the center are from relationships of the extremely short-term variety.
Whatever the nature of the family rupture, it’s Murphy-Russell’s job to make the break-up of family life a little easier for the children involved.
“We ask parents to allow their children to love the other parent,” she said.
Murphy-Russell said the center’s new home is much larger than its former lodgings in Wheaton.
“The space is bigger and it’s just a very peaceful place,” she said.
The new facility was seven years in the making and in large part of result of the work of DuPage County Board Public Works Committee Chairman James Healy (R-Naperville), who also credited former County Board member Debra Olson for her work on the project.
Healy said that he first became involved in the issue in his early days as a board member, when he began investigating budget issues and paid a visit to the previous on-campus center.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, we need a new facility,’” he said.
One thing led to another, and Healy and his colleagues realized that a new facility could be tied in with the work on the new Nicarico Center, which could help hold down costs.
“It was a no-brainer,” Healy said. “I feel fantastic about it ... it’s days like this that make you glad you got involved in government.”
DuPage Circuit Court Judge Rodney Equi, who presides over the domestic relations court, said that facilities like the Family Center provide relief to police departments who are sometimes asked to intervene in matters related to custody disputes.
“That sends a terrible message to children,” he said.
County Board Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Bob Larsen (R-Wheaton) noted that leaders from around the country looked to DuPage County’s model of integrated family services as one to emulate.
And Larsen knows something about family breakups.
“I’m a child of divorced parents,” he said. “It’s tough.”