DuPage County domestic violence advocates broaden role with merger

Hotline volunteers at the only domestic violence shelter in DuPage County work near a child's painting, a fitting symbol of a merger between two nonprofit groups.

It's a self-portrait, an expression of a girl's trauma through art. She and her mom sought refuge at the shelter from her abuser. And the girl seemed to release her emotions through thick, heavy brush strokes in shades of red, blue and green.

Inside a thought bubble, the girl wrote, “I feel this way because I can and you're not going to stop me!”

The stark visual speaks to the complex challenge of helping domestic violence survivors start a new life while addressing lasting psychological scars.

With that in mind, advocates have combined two groups with a long-standing relationship to provide a greater array of essential services to victims of domestic violence and their families.

After more than 40 years in existence, Family Shelter Service has merged into Metropolitan Family Services DuPage to broaden its role in stemming what advocates call an “epidemic.”

“We are the only domestic violence agency in DuPage County, and now we're partnered with another great agency to even have more power and more impact,” said former Family Shelter Service Executive Director Judie Caribeaux, who is taking on a new role.

Merger talks began about three years ago, prompted by a surge in the number of victims seeking services. Without enough capacity, Family Shelter had to turn away 1,000 people in the first six months of this fiscal year.

Typically, advocates serve close to 2,000 clients a year, and about 9 percent are adult male victims.

“I think that demand or need has always been there. It's just now coming to light and coming out of the shadows,” Caribeaux said. “We always knew domestic violence was an epidemic, and this is just unfortunately validating that.”

Caribeaux said it made sense to combine with Family Shelter's top referral source: Metropolitan Family Services DuPage, an agency known for providing mental health care, legal aid, early childhood education and after-school programs.

“Our mantra as an organization is twofold: how do we provide faster, greater, equal access, and how do we remove obstacles? And the merger ended up being a solution for both of those important issues,” she said.

Victims and their children also can have access to long-term counseling through Metropolitan Family Services to heal from trauma and take the next step toward independence.

“We all know that trauma changes brain chemistry,” Chief Operating Officer Theresa Nihill said. “It changes brain structure, especially in young adults and children. ... There are school-performance issues. There are behavioral issues, emotional issues sometimes with children that have to get addressed as well.”

The merger took effect a week ago, but the resources attached to Family Shelter Service — the 24-hour domestic violence hotline at (630) 469-5650, the court advocacy, the 49-bed emergency shelter — will remain in DuPage County.

Advocates call the partnership a groundbreaking approach in the nonprofit world, where mergers often arise from financial distress in a smaller organization. But in this case, both agencies approached the merger as “two very strong, highly regarded, fiscally sound organizations,” Nihill said.

“We structured the merger so that it really is an integration and a merger of programs and services and staff and donors and all of the back-office kinds of pieces,” Nihill said.

Family Shelter's direct service employees and their supervisors are staying in their roles as advocates hope to increase that staffing. The merger also will reduce administrative and overhead costs, resulting in savings to funnel back into programs.

As the new senior director of innovation and strategy, Caribeaux will continue implementing the merger and work to replicate the Family Shelter model at another six centers throughout the Metropolitan system.

“It's about expanding domestic violence services, not only in DuPage County but across all of Metropolitan,” she said.

Advocates have named the combined organization Family Shelter Service of Metropolitan Family Services DuPage, 43 years after community volunteers banded together to provide domestic violence services to those who were homeless.

“It started as a community effort,” Caribeaux said, “and what I love is that it continues to be a community effort.”

  A child's painting is on display at the only emergency shelter for domestic violence survivors in DuPage County. It's operated by Family Shelter Service, a nonprofit group that has merged into Metropolitan Family Services DuPage. Bev Horne/
  Betsy Carlson, safe connections coordinator with Family Shelter Service of Metropolitan Family Services DuPage, answers domestic violence hotline calls. The hotline remains intact after a merger between two agencies that already had a long-standing relationship. Bev Horne/
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