Neutral ground for DuPage County families dealing with divorce or separation is no longer in a rented space at a Wheaton strip mall.
Instead, the DuPage County Family Center is offering divorce education, mediation, supervised parenting time and other services in a new building on the county's Wheaton campus that officials say will be more family friendly.
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"This beautiful state-of-the-art facility is a testament to what can be done when government thinks outside the box," county board Chairman Dan Cronin said during a Tuesday ribbon-cutting ceremony for the center's new home along County Farm Road.
Officials were planning to construct the adjacent Jeanine Nicarico Children's Advocacy Center when they decided to also build the Family Center as part of the same $5.6 million project. The work was paid for with state grant money, court fines and money saved specifically for the buildings.
The new Family Center has two separate parking lots and entrances, a secured hallway and "welcoming features" such as waiting rooms filled with games and toys, officials said. Some rooms are painted with murals of animals in an effort to ease children's anxiety as they leave one parent to visit with the other.
"Our dedicated staff has really thought through all the details," said Cronin, adding the center was built to be "a place where families can come together in very trying times."
DuPage Judge Rodney Equi, who presides over the domestic relations court, said he and other family law judges are committed to protecting children and doing "everything that we can to ensure that all children have the love and affection and the involvement of two parents." He said the new Family Center is an extension of those efforts.
"We are excited for that reason to have the facility here," Equi said. "This is going to be the place where we can preserve relationships between a parent and their children, even when the parents can't stand to be in the same room together."
Equi said using the facility for neutral visitation exchanges will prevent parents who don't get along from having to see each other. Still, those parents can get "meaningful parenting time" with their children in one of the kid-friendly rooms.
County board member Jim Healy says the new facility is needed more now than ever before.
"Increasingly, families in DuPage County and across America are experiencing difficulties in living together," said Healy, who is chairman of the county board's public works committee. "This family center is here to help equip parents, who currently find themselves gong through difficult times, with the skills and support services they need to interact with each other and to work out their differences without inflicting pain or injury on the children."
Healy said the hope is to someday collect private donations to build gardens and a playground outside the Family Center.