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Florida’s first Family Justice Center opens in St. Pete

Mark Parker



A mural by artist Zulu Painter adorns the facility in St. Petersburg. All photos by Mark Parker.

Through a widely collaborative effort and with keen attention to details that support victims’ needs, Community Action Stops Abuse Pinellas (CASA) opened the state’s first Family Justice Center.

Several city council members, county commissioners, business leaders, philanthropists and Mayor Ken Welch attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony off Arlington Avenue in St. Petersburg Wednesday, adjacent to other CASA Pinellas facilities. The standing-room-only crowd heard how the center provides comprehensive, collaborative, “trauma-informed” free services to domestic violence survivors and their families under one roof.

Casey Gwinn and Gael Strack, president and CEO of Alliance for Hope, opened the first Family Justice Center in San Diego over 20 years ago. Gwinn said there are now 150 centers in 43 states and 23 countries. Despite the U.S. Department of Justice endorsing its nationwide best-practice public health and safety model, the region and state went without a facility – until now.

From left: Rachel Carpenter, chair of the CASA board of directors; Casey Gwinn, President of Alliance for Hope; Lariana Forsythe, CEO of CASA Pinellas; Charlie Justice, county commission chairman; and Gael Strack, CEO of Alliance for Hope.

Rachel Carpenter, chair of the CASA board of directors and CEO of Intrinio, called the occasion “Pinellas County history in the making.”

“Now there’s a brighter day because of the work of everyone who’s come together to make this Family Justice Center a reality,” said Welch. “So, to the entire team, I want to say thank you for making St. Petersburg and Pinellas County a better place – a place that has real solutions for folks who are going through the worst of times.”

The St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD), Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO), State Attorney’s Office, BayCare and St. Anthony’s hospitals and Pinellas County Schools are among 16 listed FJC providers and partners. They combine to provide childcare, law enforcement, advocacy, resources, and legal, medical and mental health services – all in one facility.

CASA’s FJC website states that in the first 45 days following a domestic violence incident with children, a victim must travel 20 times, relay their story 17 times, fill out 289 pages of paperwork and miss 53 hours of work.

The FJC provides comfortable offices for victims, including one for those with pets. An inviting playroom with professional childcare allows parents to tell their stories without their kids present. Video from that area streams into office monitor’s so they can still keep an eye on their children.

A medical exam room alleviates the need for victims to travel across the county for those services, and officials can also provide transportation from across the area and Hillsborough County.

Justice said that as Pinellas continues to grow, so does the complexity of CASA’s services. He relayed that the PCSO receives over 6,000 domestic violence-related calls annually.

“It’s days like this you kind of want to bifurcate your feelings a little bit,” said Justice. “It’s still ok to be mad as hell that we have to be here.

“But it’s really important to celebrate; to be grateful, to be happy that folks like CASA step up to meet the challenge in Pinellas County.”

Mike Kovacsek, assistant chief for the SPPD, explained that community resources were previously fragmented, and navigating the process presented several challenges. He asked attendees to imagine being a victim, overwhelmed with setting appointments, taking time off work, traveling to various locations and repeatedly relaying a traumatic experience.

The Raymund Foundation supported the onsite childcare center.

Survivors, Kovacsek relayed, often cite childcare and transportation as an impediment to court proceedings and a lack of an attorney for preventing injunction requests. Additionally, he said many cannot afford counseling or a place to stay away from their abusers. “These barriers have always existed,” said Kovacsek. “Until now.”

Lariana Forsythe, CEO of CASA Pinellas, said the event’s turnout was humbling. She explained that the idea for the FJC began several years ago, and her organization planned to build around its existing building due to its close proximity to the SPPD headquarters and the downtown courthouse.

However, Forsythe noted that finding a large building in St. Petersburg is nearly impossible right now. She said the dream was in jeopardy until the Hough Family Foundation provided a building for a new Family Support Center across the street.

In addition to several other donors, Forsythe told the crowd that CASA raised over $1 million in one night after announcing the project at last year’s gala.

Before offering tours of the new facility, Forsyth read a note from one of the first survivors to utilize the facility.

“She wrote, ‘I am so pleased with today. I walked in, and I immediately felt safe, and everything I needed was provided. This was an amazing experience, and I am blessed to have found your facility.'”

For more information on the Family Justice Center by CASA, visit the website here.

According to CASA’s website, in the first 45 days following a domestic violence incident with children, a victim must travel 20 times, relay their story 17 times, fill out 289 pages of paperwork and miss 53 hours of work – until now.





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