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Guinea pig pals at DuPage Family Center help put children at ease

The DuPage County Family Center can be a difficult place for the children and families that use its services.

Between court-ordered parent education courses, mediation services, supervised parenting and neutral child exchanges, there are a lot of potential stressors.

But two new additions are helping visitors feel more at ease.

Guinea pigs Bert and Ernie have been welcoming families near the front of the center for the last two months.

“It’s a very artificial way to be with a parent, and we try to help normalize that,” said Director Sheila Murphy-Russell. “Having the guinea pigs to play with gives a parent the chance to parent and do regular family stuff with their child. They can be together, do their thing and be in the moment.”

Children and parents can play with the pair during scheduled visiting time, and often take them out of their shared cage to let them run around.

The duo was donated by DuPage Animal Care and Control after the death of the center’s former guinea pig, Ollie, who entertained visiting kids for more than seven years. Ollie’s time predates the center’s move into the Nicarico Children’s Advocacy Center, which opened in September 2013.

Family Consultant Paul O’Connell said having activities such as walks on the trails by the center, board games and playing with animals can ease the tension for children uncomfortable in the setting or around their parents.

Some have been more willing to spend time at the center because of the prospect of seeing Bert and Ernie, he said.

“Here, it’s all about the kids, and the pigs are actually very helpful in bridging the gap,” he said. “I’m a stranger to them, and maybe they haven’t seen their parent in a long time. ... So we try to keep it relaxed.”

That sense of normalcy helps, Murphy-Russell said, especially when home life is anything but.

“These aren’t bad folks for the most part – they’re usually lots of fun and love their kid,” she said. “They’re just regular folks in a bad spot.”

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