In-depth: Local organization helps domestic violence survivors leave their abuser, get help they need

CASA Pinellas helps victims get the help they need
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Posted at 4:11 PM, Nov 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-03 17:18:09-04

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Going through domestic violence is traumatizing for victims. According to the CDC, one in four women has experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner. Deciding to leave is the first step in becoming a survivor, but many times, it’s not as easy as “just leaving.”

Survivors are forced to tell the details of the abuse over and over to different agencies. They must decide if they want to press charges. They need a new place to live. They may need legal help to deal with financial issues and child custody. All of this, putting more stress on an already stressful situation.

Lariana Forsythe is the CEO of CASA, a domestic violence agency in Pinellas County. She said abuse usually never starts with actual physical violence. Rather, it starts with abusers exerting control and manipulation over their victims.

“Then it escalates to violence over time,” said Forsythe.

She knows this firsthand because she is a survivor of domestic violence.

“I was in a situation that escalated and my ex-husband did try to murder me in front of my children," said Forsythe.

Thankfully, Forsythe escaped, but, she said navigating the system afterward wasn’t easy.

“I had attorneys. I had help. I had people giving me advice, but I didn’t understand how the system worked together," said Forsythe.

Understanding how the system works together can dictate whether a victim returns to their abuser or becomes a survivor. That’s why CASA is trying to make the process easier by bringing the Family Justice Center to Pinellas County. This center will house law enforcement, mental health services, legal aid and other agencies.

“And, so, the Family Justice Center brings all of those elements into one place. A survivor will walk into the Family Justice Center, they’re connected with a case manager who is a confidential expert in domestic violence," said Forsythe.

After the first Family Justice Center was started in San Diego in 2002, they saw a 95% decrease in domestic violence-related homicides. Since then, they’ve expanded to 45 states and 25 countries. This one in Pinellas is the first in Florida.

“Usually, communities reach out to us. We provide training. We provide strategic planning,” said Casey Gwinn, President of Alliance for HOPE International.

There have been 11 domestic violence-related homicides in Pinellas County this year. St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway said the Family Justice Center will help them deal with domestic violence in a more efficient way.

“Because, and the best way to put it is, this person just went through a traumatic event. Now, instead of us trying to figure out where we can take that person, we’ll be in the same building. We can interview the person, then get her story,” said Chief Holloway.

“The role of the prosecutor is to be there on the intake of it to determine what type of situation we’re dealing with,” said State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, whose office will be handling legal aid for survivors. “So, our goal would be, in the beginning, to have a prosecutor or two would be there, present, doing investigations, talking to the victims face-to-face.”

From there, they can determine if prosecution is the best route to take. Bartlett said depending on the situation, the goal is not to continuously put people in jail if there are other remedies available.

“It’s to try to get counseling and get some intervention by other organizations that make a better relationship situation for not only the husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend but any children that may be involved also," Bartlett said.

The Family Justice Center will officially open in October 2022. Here are links to resources for anyone who may be going through domestic violence.