Well-known as CASA, the full name for the organization focused on preventing domestic violence and assisting its victims is Community Action Stops Abuse; as the nonprofit continues expanding its services, its CEO stresses the power of collaboration.
When Lariana Forsythe became CEO of CASA in 2017, she inherited an organization saddled with debt that struggled to keep pace with the staggering number of domestic violence cases.
Forsythe said the former CEO was well-intentioned but became ill towards the end of her tenure, and passed away just as CASA opened a new shelter. The extra room is much-needed, as Pinellas County consistently ranks at the top of reported domestic violence in offenses in Florida.
“We’ve worked really hard over the last five years – we are now completely debt-free,” said Forsythe. “And in addition to being debt-free and running one of the largest shelters in the state, we’ve added a lot of additional programs over the last couple of years.”
Founded in 1977, CASA is the official 501c3 domestic violence center in Pinellas County. It operates the area’s 24-hour hotline and emergency shelter and offers a myriad of non-residential programs – such as support groups, economic empowerment and legal advocacy. Furthermore, the organization provides Child Protective Investigative support, community and corporate training and anti-bullying and healthy relationship grade school curriculum.
CASA offers a host of services and programming to mitigate the preponderance of domestic violence in Pinellas. According to Uniform Crime Report data, 6,111 domestic violence offenses occurred in the county in 2020, ranking fifth in the state. While Pinellas ranked just below more populated Hillsborough County, it recorded more cases than the much larger Broward County.
For perspective, Pinellas’ 6,111 cases were over 500 more than Broward’s. With 1,932,212 residents, Broward’s population is nearly twice that of Pinellas.
“We have a very dense population here,” said Forsythe. “So, I think that’s a big reason for it.”
Forsyth has made it her mission to meet the area’s needs. When she first became CASA’s leader, the organization employed 60-65 staff members. Five years later, that number is 110.
CASA’s staff is not the only thing that has grown exponentially.
In the fiscal year 2020-21, statistics show the organization provided 2,280 justice advocacy sessions at Pinellas County Courthouses, an annual increase of 72%. The number of shelter beds increased from about 25 in 2015 to around 125 in 2021 and continues to grow. In 2016, CASA rapidly rehoused 400 survivors; in 2021, that number approached 600.
For Forsythe, CASA’s rapid growth brought its services “where they needed to be all along.”
“But it’s capitalizing on collaborative opportunities,” she added. “Our organization believes in collaboration.”
CASA partners with the local Homeless Leadership Alliance and Continuum of Care provider to access federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding that supports the organization’s housing initiatives. Forsythe credited those partnerships – along with the local nonprofit Boley Centers – for enabling CASA to provide a roof over the heads of domestic violence survivors and their children.
In another show of local nonprofit solidarity, Forsyth also announced a new partnership that is as innovative as it is collaborative.
The Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Coalition (PERC), which helps the formerly imprisoned secure jobs and begin a new life, has agreed to collaborate with CASA on a project to provide 20 of the tiny homes for domestic violence survivors to be located in Northern Pinellas.
Forsythe said HUD approved the project, and the organizations are currently looking for land.
“Isn’t that amazing?” said Forsythe.
Forsythe explained the project’s benefits, noting that the tiny home concept works in a county with limited space, and facing a housing crisis. The project is also uniquely suited for survivors of domestic violence, as the small layout enables residents to “see every nook and cranny and feel safe.”
Additionally, Forsythe envisions a community of former victims looking out for each other, and an on-premises case manager and staff member.
“It also allows them to bring their pet to live with them,” she said. “A lot of survivors will not leave a dangerous situation because if they leave, what’s going to happen to their pet, and if they can’t get their pet with them – they’ll stay.”
According to national data on the CASA website, 70% of survivors report their abuser also targeted their pets.
Forsythe said CASA made housing programs a priority over the last three years. If the local housing crunch was not bad enough, she explained that abusers often put an apartment in a victim’s name and never pay. When the victim tries to leave, she said it is difficult to find a place to stay due to a bad rental history or eviction.
CASA employs a team of advocates who work with landlords and try to explain the financial abuse tactics.
“We can vouch for the survivor or assist with payments, and so they’ll rent to a survivor they wouldn’t have otherwise rented to,” she said. “So, that rapid rehousing program is really critical to rehousing people, and as you can see, it’s grown exponentially over the years.”
Forsyth also announced a new program for the many children affected by domestic violence. She said CASA began its partnership with Camp Hope “a while ago,” but this summer marks the first time the children will travel to a sleepaway camp together.
Children form bonds over campfires, horseback riding and other activities. According to its website, Camp Hope’s mission is “providing a pathway to give children their childhood back.”
“They do a week-long camp with all of these other trauma survivors,” said Forsythe. “So that they know that they’re not alone, and they build these friendships and relationships, and it’s just an amazing program.
“We’re super excited about it.”
The camp is in August, and like any of CASA’s programs, Forsythe said that those interested should call the organization.
While more funding is always helpful, Forsythe said CASA’s greatest need is community awareness. She explained that domestic violence thrives because people do not give it the attention it deserves, and many do not realize the frequency with which it occurs.
Forsythe bemoaned the continuous victim-blaming and lack of understanding of the difficulties women and men face when trying to leave an abusive relationship or ask for help. According to CASA’s website, 33% of all women are victims of domestic violence. The rates of men suffering from abuse are only slightly lower, at 25%.
Financial and child custody situations are common challenges people face when trying to leave, said Forsythe, along with controls put in place over long periods that make victims feel trapped.
“I am a survivor of domestic violence, and I can tell you, I had no idea I was in that kind of situation,” said Forsythe. “So, I think even more than the money – it’s important for people to understand how prevalent it is, that they’re not alone and that there is help out there.”
Local businesses can help with both awareness and funding through CASA’s 2nd Annual Day of Giving in August. Forsythe said the media campaign is a critical fundraiser for the organization and a significant brand-building opportunity for its partners.
The event encourages community members to donate before Aug. 18, “with a hard push to rally behind and support domestic violence survivors, their children and pets on the Day of Giving,” while also offering the community the chance to see what companies support CASA’s mission.
“We would never be able to fund a media campaign to talk about domestic violence,” said Forsythe. “So, it allows us to do two really great things – at the same time.
“It can only live and thrive if we don’t talk about it.”
CASA’s office and 24-hour hotline number are (727) 895-4912. For more information on all of CASA’s programs and services, visit the website here.