The DuPage County Family Center ("the Center"), located at 1525 N. Main Street, Wheaton, Illinois, is one of the most under-utilized tools for dealing with difficult, high-conflict family situations. The Center currently offers five services: Parent Education, Mediation, Neutral Exchange, Supervised Visitation, and Transitional Exchange. Although many practitioners are already aware of the Center’s services, this article will outline the Center’s policies and procedures, along with practical advice for both the parties’ attorneys and the participating Guardians Ad Litem ("GALs").
Before the Center can provide their services, both parties must complete the approximately forty-five minute intake process in person. Intakes for supervised visitation are only scheduled for Wednesday mornings and Thursday evenings. Neutral Exchange intakes are generally scheduled around the Center’s scheduled exchanges. By calling the Center, a practitioner may be able to facilitate the intake process before a Court Order has been entered.
Parents and Kids ("PAK") is a parent education program for non-married parents; Caring, Coping, and Children ("CCC") is a parent education program for divorcing parents. The Court generally requires the parties to complete one of these programs. Parties can register by phone or online for both PAK and CCC. PAK registrants must attend in person, but CCC registrants can complete the class online. Once the parent education program is completed, the Center files the certificate of completion with the Clerk of the Circuit Court.
Although mediation is typically ordered directly from the paternity and expedited child support courtrooms, if a judge determines a party’s indigent status, the Center will follow the Court Order. Mediation is available free of charge for all never married parents and may be utilized in the divorcing population for those that cannot afford a private mediator.
Neutral Exchange is open to anyone for any length of time based upon the Center’s resources. However, notwithstanding the language in the Court Order, the Center can only operate Neutral Exchange during their hours of operation. The parents enter through separate doors, and a Center staff-member walks the child through the hallway to where the other parent is waiting. Written observational records of the exchange are kept by the Center and include things such as if the child was dressed appropriately for the weather, if eye-contact was established between parent and child, and observations regarding the ‘hello and goodbye’ between parent and child. The Center automatically generates a ninety day site report to the Court. No other report is generated unless a significant event occurs or parenting time does not occur. Therefore, many important details may be missed by practitioners not actively seeking this information from the Center. If practitioners are unable to attain the information, they may choose to simply subpoena the desired information.
During Supervised Visitation, the supervisor, the parent, and the child are in a room at the Center. If a practitioner specifies a time and date on the Court Order, it may be impossible for the Center to comply based upon their schedule, staff availability, and other resources. Because the Center has limited resources, the accepted number of supervised visits through the Center is one one-hour visit per week for six weeks. The Center generates a detailed report for the Court on the next scheduled status date. This report contains observations only; the supervisor’s opinions are not included.
The visiting parent must follow the rules that are given to the parents during intake, such as no speaking in foreign languages and no whispering. If that parent does not follow the rules, the supervisor has the discretion to so note in the documentation. The supervisor documents all observations in a chart-like system. The supervisor notes factors such as activities engaged in, the demeanor of parent and child, and dialog between parent and child. However, the report to the Court does not always detail everything that was documented during the visit.
Transitional Exchange is similar to Neutral Exchange in that they both facilitate visitation. However, Transitional Exchange is expected to function for approximately three to six months, whereas Neutral Exchange can last for years. Additionally, the Center’s staff is more involved in the family contacts and communication during Transitional Exchange. By briefly observing each parent with the children and meeting separately with each parent and the children at both the beginning and the end of the exchange, the Center is able to report on family strengths and areas of concern within the family. The Center will send a narrative report to the Court summarizing the contact with the family, any concerns, and other issues.
Under the Center’s policies, if a staff-member of the Center smells alcohol or believes a parent to be intoxicated, the Center requests that that person submit to a breathalyzer test at the Center. The staff-member’s observations would also be documented, as well as the decision to submit or not to submit to the breathalyzer, along with the results. If the parent chooses not to submit to the breathalyzer test or the breath result comes back higher than a 0.00, the child will not be released to that parent.
Although these results will be noted, they may not necessarily be disclosed to the Court, the attorneys, or the GAL, as a report for neutral exchange is much less detailed than a report for supervised visitation. Therefore, practitioners must independently seek this information. Additionally, if the Court Order states that the parties must submit to a breathalyzer test each visit, the Center and the parties must comply.
Cameras are positioned in the waiting rooms and at each of the entrances. Although the technology makes some details difficult to ascertain, facial expressions, body language, and other valuable information can be gained by viewing the videos. Practitioners should subpoena the videos if the facts of their case deem it appropriate.
Although not currently funded or staffed, the Center is also exploring the possibility of the following: Mediation for small issues, Parenting Coordinators, Conflict Resolution Groups and Advanced Parenting Education Classes. The Center is willing to comply with Court Orders that detail creative options, subject to the Center’s funding and availability of resources.
In conclusion, practitioners are encouraged to utilize the Center to help the parties and to gain insights into the parties’ situation. Practitioners should communicate not only with their client as to what occurs during visitation, but with the staff at the Center, regarding the visitation, their observations, and their opinions. Practitioners should obtain the parties’ releases for all information regarding DuPage County Family Center documentation. Practitioners are advised to use the release or a subpoena to obtain the pertinent documentation and/or videos relative to their case, as detailed information may exist in the Center’s documentation that is not reported to the Court, the attorneys, or the GAL. If alcohol is an issue in the case, Practitioners should draft the Court Order regarding breathalyzer testing accordingly. Practitioners should also use the DuPage County Family Center’s form court orders, which are available in some of the court rooms and with the judges’ secretaries. Lastly, it is also recommended that practitioners and GALs visit the facility to better understand its services, policies, and procedures.
By following this practical advice, one can utilize the Center’s resources, more effectively deal with difficult, high-conflict cases, and improve one’s own practice skills.
More information regarding the DuPage County Family Center can be found online at http://www.dupageco.org/familycenter. The Center’s Director, Sheila Murphy-Russell, can be reached for questions or comments by telephone at (630) 407-2460 or by e-mail at familycenter @dupageco.org.
Clarissa R.E. Myers, is a DuPage County Assistant Public Defender. She attended the University of Florida; Graduated 2002 with Highest Honors; J.D. DePaul University College of Law 2006 Graduate.