Last month, Family Defense Center Executive Director Rachel O’Konis Ruttenberg and Domestic Violence Legal Clinic Executive Director Margaret Duval announced their two organizations are merging into a new, stronger and broader organization. Over a year ago, Rachel reached out to Polk Bros. Foundation Senior Program Officer Debbie Reznick to share that she was beginning to consider how a strategic partnership might help Family Defense Center navigate financial strains and also grow fast enough to meet the increasing demand for its services and expertise. Debbie helped Rachel connect with several potential merger partners. After conversations with a number of agencies, Rachel identified the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic as the partner that would best help address Family Defense Center’s top priorities, noting its complementary expertise and goals and similar organizational culture. After a lot of work by Rachel and Margaret and their boards, the merger is moving forward with financial support, to date, from Polk Bros. Foundation, the Efroymson Family Fund and the Mission Sustainability Initiative.
We’re grateful Rachel and Margaret have agreed to share their insights in this first post of our new blog series.
Rachel: The Family Defense Center’s mission has been to advocate justice for families in the child welfare system. Our vision is a system where families are respected, protected and supported. Through legal assistance, impact litigation, policy advocacy, and collaborative partnerships, we advocate that parents should not be punished by the child welfare system for difficult life circumstances, such as poverty or being a victim of domestic violence, or for everyday parenting decisions when children are not at risk. Instead, child welfare policies and practices should be focused on helping children who are truly abused and neglected, and on strengthening families and communities.
Margaret: Our previous mission at DVLC was to provide free legal services and referrals to low-income Cook County residents who have been subjected to domestic violence. In March, our Board of Directors approved a new mission for our combined organization: Empowering individuals and families impacted by gender-based violence or the child welfare system to achieve safety and stability through holistic legal advocacy and systemic reform.
Rachel: For us, success means making progress on reforming the laws, policies, and practices of the Illinois child welfare system, while continuing to provide direct legal help for hundreds of families across the state each year. This means that we have identified issues through our clients’ experiences, and have pursued litigation, legislative reform, or partnerships in order to make improvements in how the state is intervening or working with families.
Margaret: At DVLC, we are intentional about aligning our definition of success with our clients’ goals — so it’s really not a traditional litigators’ win-loss tally. To attain this version of success, we have to start with truly listening to our survivor clients to understand the spectrum of challenges they face and help them define (and expand) their own goals for safety, health and economic independence. We feel successful as an agency because we are growing in ways that are responsive to our clients and what they are telling us they need.
Rachel: Over the last few years, the need for our services and leadership on reforming the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has continued to grow. However, we could not increase our organization’s infrastructure — financial resources, staff, volunteers and administrative support — quickly enough to meet the current demand, much less make plans for expansion. By merging with a larger, like-minded organization, we can continue to serve clients and hopefully invest in more collaborative ways to achieve system reforms.
Margaret: We believe the child welfare system should act as a support to survivors of domestic violence, but too often our clients have experienced the system as an obstacle that complicates or hinders their efforts to keep their families safe.
More broadly, we (and many others in our sector) have struggled to respond to the complexity of our clients’ experience and the ways that race, poverty, immigration status, etc. have shaped their stories. I think this merger is an important step in grappling with how these factors impact survivors’ experience of domestic violence (and their ability to access resources and systems to end it). Although not all of our family defense clients will be survivors of domestic violence, the merger allows us to highlight how frequently survivors are involved in the child welfare system and how their race, income, neighborhood, immigration status, ability to speak English, and a host of other factors impact their access to resources and safety.
Rachel: Our child welfare system here in Illinois is in crisis, as we read about in the news almost every day. Children are less safe, and families are being dragged through a system that hurts more than helps. Do we as a society have the strength, creativity, and will to come together and broadly reform a badly broken system so that it truly serves children and families in the best way possible? That is what concerns me most about the future of Chicago and Illinois. However, what inspires me are the families who fight for themselves and their children, and find the strength to move forward every single day. And our staff. Our staff and their commitment to our clients and our work is what drives me to make our organization better, more strategic and more impactful.
Margaret: I am a mother of three, including one child in middle school. This age is notoriously (and legitimately) challenging and I personally remember middle school as the time when I began to feel vulnerable to sexual harassment and dating violence. But I feel like children start life with a deep well of compassion and empathy and I am hopeful because I see schools, parents, and advocates working together to educate our kids about healthy, respectful relationships, affirming differences, and caring for each other. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I absolutely feel that my children have an expectation of safety and mutual respect that was not the norm when/where I grew up.
Rachel: What has surprised me time and time again during this merger process is the open-mindedness of everyone involved, and the trust and commitment with which each staff member, board member and funder has approached our organizational changes. Everyone truly has had the organization’s best interests in mind. I wish other organizations could feel that sense of commitment and community behind them every time they embark on a difficult conversation or transition. To be on the same page about what drives us all — and to have all of our stakeholders engaged and behind us throughout this process — was the key ingredient that made this merger a success.
Change is just generally difficult and a merger comes with a ton of change. Our administrative staff had to move on to other organizations and I had to be all-in in designing a combined organization that, at the end of the day, I knew I would not have the opportunity to be a part of. But, again, the trust and commitment that are the foundation of our partnership with DVLC made it easy to not take it personally and make sure we were doing the best we could for our staff, clients and the future of the work.
Margaret: For me, merging with another legal aid agency has shone new light on the vital role of lawyers in achieving social change. DVLC and the Family Defense Center both have expertise in serving individuals in crisis, and we are excited about how the merger will grow our ability to impact systems and policies as well. The Family Defense Center brings a wealth of experience in policy advocacy and collaborative projects, and we plan for those capabilities to form the foundation of a new division of our agency that will be focused on systemic advocacy.
These are all formidable tools and part of the unique value we as lawyers bring to our work. However, our tools and strategies don’t define us; our mission does. In that sense it’s important to place our (legal) work in the context of a broader movement working towards a more just and equitable society.
The final thing I’d like to share is the joy of our work. Of course working with survivors of domestic violence and parents involved with the child welfare system can be sad (and sometimes infuriating!). But we also get to witness incredible resilience, share moments of humor and accompany really brave people as they transform their lives.
Update: On June 6, 2019, Margaret and Rachel announced that the name of their new, combined agency is Ascend Justice. Learn more.
Margaret Duval is Executive Director of the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic
Rachel O’Konis Ruttenberg is Executive Director of Family Defense Center