PEORIA — When Carol Merna saw unused space in CASA’s new Pekin offices, she knew just what to do with it.

“When CASA had a ribbon cutting for their newest office in Pekin, Pam (Perrilles) and I started talking and I said ... how CFPA needed additional space in Pekin, and she said, ‘Well, let’s talk about that,’” said Merna, chief executive officer from the Center for Prevention of Abuse.

As executive director for CASA of the 10th Judicial Circuit, Pam Perrilles is well acquainted with the center’s services. CASA is a national organization which assigns volunteer advocates to children who are in the court system because they have suffered from abuse or neglect. CASA volunteers often recommend the free counseling services available at the center to their clients. A counseling office in CASA’s Pekin location will make those services more easily accessed by families attending hearings at the Tazewell County Courthouse.

“This is a way we can help speed the process along for families struggling to find resources in that community,” said Perrilles.

The center provides services to all ages. Counseling is particularly important for children impacted by trauma, said Merna.

“When you are a child, and you experience trauma, there’s adrenaline and cortisol that is pumping through your still growing body and mind ... and it changes the whole physiology of your body,” she said. “It can shorten your life up to 20 years because your body cannot adapt to these chemicals that come from trauma. It’s important to be treated with loving care by adults.”

The Center for Prevention of Abuse also counsels adults. While CASA deals directly with children, they reach out to their parents because often the best way to help a child is to heal the family, said Perrilles.

“All kids want to go home, and a lot of times that’s very possible if the parents can get the counseling and the help they need to overcome these issues of domestic violence,” she said. “So we’re gonna encourage the parents to get the counseling, to get involved, to get everything they need. Even though DCFS has their own therapists, a lot of time there’s a waiting list. Our volunteers are trained to encourage families they are working with to take advantage of services at CFPA.”

The partnership was attractive to Merna because the center's main campus in Peoria is bursting at the seams.

“Right now we have 10 master’s level therapists, and we are in the process of hiring two more, but we have no space for them,” said Merna. The Center for Prevention of Abuse is planning to add a new wing at the main campus, but satellite offices are important for people who don’t have the resources to travel a long distance to get to appointments.

Expansion is happening at the center because the need is great. Last March it saw a 60 percent increase in new referrals for abuse survivors, and since then the demand has not dropped much, Merna said.

“Right now we have about a 40-person waiting list, and that’s largely children in crisis,” she said.

The partnership between the Center for Prevention of Abuse and CASA has just recently been formalized, and the new Pekin office is still under construction. Though there are currently no plans to permanently locate therapists in the Pekin office, it’s something the center might consider in the future, said Merna.

“The offices will be there for counselors to use — it will be home base when they are in Pekin,” she said. “It will be staffed by appointment. If a family is going to be in court, we can make ourselves available.”

Proximity is important, but perhaps even more important is the fact that services through the Center for Prevention of Abuse are free, said Perrilles.

“For a lot of our clients, their problems revolve around poverty. So being able to pay for any type of service is just not something they are able to do,” said Perrilles.

The ultimate goal is to heal families and break the cycle of abuse that can exist for generations. When a parent works through their problems, children stand witness and learn how to start a new family tradition going forward. Counseling can help families do that, said Merna.

“For years, the question was ‘what’s the matter with you?’ That’s not the question any more, it’s ‘what happened to you, and let us help you work through that,’” she said. “So I’m very grateful for the partnership, the space, and the access because I know it’s gonna make a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.