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CASA unveils new approach to helping victims of domestic violence

Margie Manning

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

St. Petersburg could be the home for the first Family Justice Center in Florida by July 2022.

The center would provide all the services that victims of domestic violence need in one place, according to Lariana Forsythe, CEO of CASA, the official domestic violence center in Pinellas County.

That’s a far different scenario than the current system, Forsythe and CASA board member Justin McClain told the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday. Currently, a domestic violence victim with children has to travel 20 times and tell their story 17 times to responders and service providers, fill out 289 pages of paperwork and miss 53 hours of work, on average, all while caring for their children, working, going to school and paying bills.

“The Family Justice Center model puts an emphasis on community collaboration, offering streamlined services from multiple agencies to survivors and their children in one place,” said McClain, who is a mental health practitioner and owner of Home Again Counseling. “Rather than traveling 17 times and filling out near 300 pages of paperwork in our current system, at the CASA One Place Family Justice Center, a survivor would fill out one intake packet, enter a private living room and a navigator will facilitate bringing trauma-informed specialists to work with the survivor on their specific needs.”

Pinellas County is ready to embrace the Family Justice Center model, and CASA is ready to lead the way with it, McClain told the City Council.

The model was pioneered in San Diego about 20 years ago. In the first 10 years that center was open, San Diego saw a 90 percent drop in homicides from domestic violence, McClain said.

The model has since expanded to hundreds of centers nationwide, winning an endorsement from the U.S. Department of Justice as a best practice for helping domestic violence victims, Forsythe said.

“Over the last couple of years, CASA and the St. Petersburg Police Department have formed a very close partnership and are partners in our request for federal funds to bring family justice to life in St. Petersburg in July 2022,” she said.

$132 million impact

Domestic violence is usually hidden behind closed doors, but it’s a major problem in Pinellas County, Forsythe said.

“Pinellas County consistently has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Florida. Domestic violence happens in our community more than murder, aggravated assault, burglary, robbery, rape and vehicle theft combined,” she said.

Domestic violence costs the county $132 million annually, accounting for 31 percent of all police calls in the county and putting stress on the emergency management, judicial and healthcare systems, she said.

CASA currently operates a domestic violence shelter with more than 100 beds, but shelter is only part of what’s needed.

“In Florida, we’ve tried to solve the issue of domestic violence by focusing on shelter, ignoring the fact that in Florida less than 14 percent of offenses result in a plea or a conviction. Emergency shelter is just a small part of the solution, and the issue of domestic violence is much bigger than a safe place to lay your head,” she said.

Forsythe played a video for Council members, showing the multiple phone calls, meetings, paperwork and other requirements a domestic violence survivor has to deal with.

“In a system that is fueled by the presumption of innocence, domestic violence victims are an afterthought. They have just lived through the ultimate betrayal, their bodies high on adrenaline and cortisone thinking they were about to die, and then they are handed a pamphlet, or 10, and they are expected to know how to console their children and pick up the pieces of their lives, all while navigating a system that most go to law school to understand,” she said.

The Family Justice Center would provide access to advocacy, childcare, law enforcement, criminal and legal services, mental health services and crisis counseling, medical services and connections to other needed resources all in one place.

CASA is on the cutting edge with the project, said Council member Amy Foster, who also is executive director of the Homeless Leadership Alliance. She said she had a constituent earlier this year who was a victim of domestic violence.

“The rest of the story did not go as we would hope for a citizen of the city of St. Pete,” Foster said. “But one of the things I’m really excited about with the Family Justice Center is all of the challenges that person experienced would be alleviated in many ways by having all services under one roof and right near our police department.”

Police Chief Anthony Holloway and Hon. Jack Helinger, a judge in the Sixth Judicial Circuit, also offered support for the program in CASA’s written presentation to the city council.

“I see the tremendous wisdom in having one place for them [survivors] to go where they can address so many different issues … The court system looks forward to being involved with this, we’ll certainly lend our support,” Helinger said.

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