ST. PETERSBURG — Community Action Stops Abuse, a nonprofit that serves domestic violence survivors and their families, will open Florida’s only family justice center in October 2022 in Pinellas County, putting all the services they need under one roof.
CEO Lariana Forsythe said that will make their journey to freedom easier.
The legal process of leaving an abusive relationship and attaining social services is exhausting, said Forsythe, who was a domestic violence survivor when she lived in Phoenix.
A Pinellas domestic violence survivor had to travel across the county 20 times to state and social service offices and retell her story of abuse 17 times, according to the nonprofit. She had to keep a file of the complicated paperwork with her, filing the documents within deadlines of 24 or 48 hours.
The process can take survivors away from their jobs and leave them in need of child care, Forsythe said, which could prevent them from making a successful transition out of an abusive relationship.
A quarter of women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, Forsythe said, forcing abusers and victims to spend more time at home, isolated from friends and family who could intervene.
Pinellas County has had 12 domestic violence-related homicides so far this year, twice the number in 2020. The nonprofit, known as CASA, received 5,245 calls to its 24-hour domestic violence hotline between July 2020 and June 2021. That’s 35 percent more calls than the previous year, said Jill Flansburg, the organization’s senior grants and compliance manager.
In partnership with the county, the CASA Family Justice Center will be a place for survivors to meet with a sheriff’s detective, a forensics nurse, a civil attorney, a prosecutor’s representative and mental health professionals. The nonprofit also has a shelter for survivors in a separate, undisclosed location.
Each survivor, or client, will have a “navigator” assigned to help them maneuver the legal system and the services they need. This way, the client only has to recount his or her trauma once to the navigator. Survivors will meet with agency representatives in their own office suite, which will have a computer, coffee machine and opportunities for privacy whenever they want it.
“Sometimes victims are so overwhelmed that they don’t see a way out,” Forsythe said, “and really, our goal is to help them see that there is.”
The facility will have an onsite day care center for the clients’ children, and counselors who can provide youth trauma therapy.
Forsythe said she expects the Pinellas County center to serve 10 to 12 clients a day.
The nonprofit’s building at 1011 First Ave. N will be renovated into the family justice center. Staff members who don’t work directly with survivors will move into a smaller building behind it.
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St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway agreed that navigating the current process can be intimidating. A survivor in St. Petersburg must go to the police station to file a domestic violence report, after which officers typically refer them to CASA or other service agencies. If a follow-up investigation occurs, the survivor must return to the station.
Meeting with survivors in the comfort of the family justice center will help alleviate some of the burden of leaving an abusive relationship.
“Survivors have gone through enough trauma,” Holloway said. “It’s our job to not make the process harder for them than it needs to be.”
There are 44 other family justice centers in the country. The first one opened nearly two decades ago in San Diego, and is credited with helping reduce domestic violence-related homicides in the city by 95 percent between 1994 and 2007, according to the U.S. Office on Violence Against Women.
In 2003, President George W. Bush launched the President’s Family Justice Center Initiative, which built 15 more centers, based on the San Diego blueprint.
Casey Gwinn, president of Alliance for Hope International and founder of the first family justice center, said the idea came about when he met Ashley Walker, founder of Battered Women’s Services at the San Diego YWCA, while working as a domestic violence and child abuse prosecutor for the city.
“We got laughed out of meeting after meeting, ” Gwinn said. “People were like: ‘That’s not the way we do things. Everybody has their own agencies.’ ”
The idea would take shape in 1996, when Gwinn was elected San Diego city attorney and had access to a $35 million budget and 350-person staff. The center opened in 2002.
The CASA center will be the only one in Florida when it opens. The Family Justice Center of Hillsborough County closed in 2013, due to a lack of funding, after running for seven years and serving 11,000 survivors and their families.
The Pinellas center, funded by federal grants and private donations, will cost $4.5 million to launch. That would cover building renovations and operational costs for three years, Forsythe said. The nonprofit is 30 percent from its financial goal.
Gwinn said that his organization has been closely involved with planning for the CASA Family Justice Center, and was for the Hillsborough center 15 years ago. He cited a couple of issues that hindered the Hillsborough center’s long-term success: The initiative had only half-hearted support from community agencies, he said, and the operating nonprofit did not have direct access to federal grant funding.
Neither is the case this time around, Gwinn said, and he’s optimistic.
“I have been amazed at the amount of engagement from judges, prosecutors, police officers, community organizations,” Gwinn said, “because people trust CASA ... (which) has a very long, distinguished history of working with survivors.”
Gwinn said he expects 10 family justice centers in Florida by 2030, including one in Hillsborough County. Orange County is planning its center, he said, with support from Alliance for Hope International.
Correction: A Pinellas County domestic violence survivor had to travel across the county repeatedly and retell her story 17 times. The survivor was misidentified in an earlier version of the story, due to a source error. Additionally, there are 44 family justice centers in the United States. The number was incorrect in that earlier version, also due to a source error.
If you or someone you know is in a relationship with domestic violence, call one of the following 24-hour hotlines: Pinellas County — 727-895-4912; Hillsborough County — 813-247-7233; Pasco County — 352-521-3120.
Signs of a relationship with domestic violence:
- Abuser isolates victim from friends or family.
- Victim is encouraged or forced to stop participating in activities important to them.
- Abuser controls finances or puts victim on an allowance, asks for explanations of spending.
- Victim is blamed for his or her feelings, yelled at or made to feel “small.”
- Abuser criticizes and controls victim’s appearance, including what they can wear.
- Abuser abandons victim in places they don’t know.
- Abuser keeps victim from eating, sleeping or getting medical care.
- Abuser throws things or punches things around victim.
Learn more or donate at www.casapinellas.org