Standing up to silence

Domestic abuse often is shrouded in silence. According to a National Crime Victimization survey, only about half of all domestic violence incidents are reported to law enforcement.

Misinformation, stigma, fear—there are many reasons contributing to this silence, but CASA Pinellas speaks out for survivors, and victims, reminding us every day, but especially now during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, that we must stand up to silence. It’s more than just a motto, it’s a mission: to give a voice to the victims of domestic violence by offering a wide range of services, and support, while raising wider community awareness about the issue.

Lariana Forsythe, CEO of CASA.

“CASA strives to really quantify that domestic violence isn’t just happening to a small percentage of people. This is something that’s actually very prevalent and critical to our community. The University of South Florida St. Pete campus did an economic impact study for us and found that, on an annual basis, we know of about 6,000 cases that are reported in Pinellas County,” says Lariana Forsythe, chief executive officer at CASA. “Of course, domestic violence is a very underreported crime, so the numbers are much bigger than that, but even with those 6,000 reported cases, USF found $132 million dollars of economic impact every year. And domestic violence is the No. 1 call to police, other than petty theft. It is incredibly prevalent and impactful, but victims remain isolated and voiceless.”

CASA, which is short for Community Action Stops Abuse, speaks out with a variety of strategies. The most well-known is its shelter, one of the largest in Florida. Housing anywhere from 80 to 120 persons every night—victims of abuse and their children—CASA provides a confidential, secure temporary home. But refuge is simply one aspect of its multifaceted support system for victims. 

Launching this month, on Oct. 19, the CASA Family Justice Center will become a hub to consolidate that support. Based on a model created by former San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn, the center will bring together a variety of services for victims. CASA employs a team of six lawyers and two paralegals who offer a range of free legal services, everything from advice on stalking, sexual assault,  how to protect your finances and helping you file an injunction for protection. But legal assistance is just part of what CASA offers. As Forsythe explains, “we will have 12 different partners on site. For example, we’ll have the school district on site, mental health support, strangulation assessments and sexual assault assessments. We have immigration, family and housing attorneys and every client has their own case manager to help guide their path of needed support.” 

Adds Forsythe, “We also work with [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] as part of our extensive housing program offering three different types of housing, so now we’re rehousing hundreds of clients every single year in these programs.” 

And that’s only a glimpse into CASA’s comprehensive support network. In the last five years, since Forsythe took over as CEO, CASA has doubled the amount of staff and greatly expanded its services. Forsythe, a 20-year veteran as a nonprofit organization executive, is also a survivor of domestic violence herself. 

“Moving to CASA was the perfect fit for my skills and passion. I don’t mind sharing that I’m a survivor, because it’s part of what I believe—that domestic violence for so long has been [hidden by] secrecy and that’s why it continues to happen,” Forsythe says. “We don’t talk about it. So I’m a very proud survivor because I was one of those people who didn’t know that what I was in was domestic violence. I just didn’t realize until it escalated to the point where my ex-husband tried to kill me. And that’s why education, from my perspective, is so very important.”

CASA makes education a vital component of its services. One way it speaks out is in local schools. Peacemakers is an age-appropriate, multiweek curriculum for kindergarten, fourth and fifth grade, continuing on in middle and high school. 

“The curriculum helps young people understand healthy relationships and practical ways to deal when it’s not healthy. For example, how to set boundaries,” Forsythe says. 

CASA also offers community education and training on domestic violence for corporations, either live or available for download. Recent programs were run for the nurses at St. Anthony’s Hospital and the Tampa Bay Rays’ back office. 

There are many ways to lend your voice to CASA besides donations and sponsorship. 

This month is the 26th annual Peace Celebration Luncheon, on Dec. 6. 

The CASA Thrift Store not only provides essential items for displaced families rehousing after escaping abuse, it’s also a top earner for the nonprofit group as a popular local spot for thrift and vintage items. 

Another way to volunteer is to become a Justice Advocate. “Justice advocates are trained to support victims,” Forsythe says. “Explaining the court process, defining all the legal terms. And when they’re literally in the courtroom against their abuser they have somebody there, figuratively, and sometimes literally, holding their hand, to be that support for them.” 

For companies wanting to help, CASA welcomes a variety of opportunities from painting for a day or lending a hand at the Thrift Store. “It’s life-changing work, because domestic violence affects everyone,” Forsythe says.  

Citing the famous Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Kaiser Permanente adverse childhood experiences study, Forsythe points out how children raised in families with a history of domestic violence face numerous health and well-being challenges as adults—and are more likely to be violent themselves. 

“Imagine if we took domestic violence seriously, from the very beginning, but, unfortunately, we don’t. We rarely prosecute, they rarely get jail time. They rarely are held accountable,” Forsythe says. 

For CASA, change starts with speaking out. As Forsythe says, “Domestic violence never starts with physical violence. It starts with financial abuse or abuses in power, and control, dynamics or verbal abuse—things that people don’t typically categorize as domestic violence. Often victims don’t understand that they’re in a relationship that could easily escalate. And so that’s all part of the education … it’s really about standing up and saying enough is enough, both for our survivors and victims, but also for the community, to keep up awareness of how much help this issue really needs.”

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