“Game changer” for victims of domestic violence

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. – The grand opening of CASA’s newest Family Justice Center is an event that CASA Pinellas CEO Lariana Forsythe has described as a “game changer.”

The opening of the Family Justice Center has taken years and is the first of its kind for Pinellas County residents, with more than a dozen resources for domestic violence survivors under one roof.

“It makes sense,” Forsythe said. “If you can make it easier for survivors to get everything they need, they’ll get more services, which means we can break the cycle.”

A few weeks before the center opened on October 19, Forsythe gave ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska a tour of the facility.

Time is running out for many and sadly there may be no tomorrow for them to return.

The center is designed to optimize time and space for survivors, including private individual lounge-type spaces so survivors can wait for their case manager. They can also file a police report and watch every room to see their children playing in the daycare center down the hall.

Case managers help the survivor through the process.

“Now we never encourage survivors one way or another,” Forsythe said. “It’s a survivor’s decision on what they want and how they handle their case. ‘Do you want to meet with a police officer? Do you want to have a physical exam? Do you need a rape exam? If you want these things, they ‘are available to you.'”

Forsythe said the medical professionals who administer the exams are trained to look for any signs of abuse, especially strangulation.

“One thing that people don’t realize, if someone has ever been strangled by their partner, they are seven to 800 times more likely to ultimately be murdered by that partner,” Forsythe said. “So it’s a huge red flag for us to ask more in-depth questions, so that we can try to protect this survivor in the future.”

Unfortunately, incidents of domestic violence continue to increase, making the need for a family justice center all the more critical.

According to data provided by CASA, Pinellas County is ranked fifth out of 67 counties for the highest rates of domestic violence in Florida. Since 2015, 43 domestic violence homicides and 32,115 incidents have been reported in Pinellas County.

“First of all, it’s massively underreported,” Forsythe said. “You think, ‘This is just happening to me, there’s no one else in this situation.’ I don’t know if you’ve noticed this before, but in the news they’re constantly reporting murder-suicides, or what is murder, suicide is domestic violence. It’s never labeled like domestic violence. trying to do a lot of work so people can recognize that it’s a common problem.”

Before the center opened, Forsythe said they would “be seeing seven to eight survivors a day; we expect that to at least double in the first month or two.”

CASA operates one of the largest shelters in Florida, with 80-100 people each night; half are children.

“I think this model will become very popular all over Florida,” Forsythe said. “Again, there are family justice centers all over the country, but there is no other in Florida than this one when it opens. But, I will also say, we also have a lot of lucky in this county that we have great relations.”

She also mentioned how important it is to have a supportive community and partners.

“Our state’s attorney’s office was one of the first to say, ‘That’s a great idea,'” Forsythe said. “We have a great police department, the St. Petersburg Police Department, which again says, ‘We see the enormous value in this. We want to be there to help facilitate services for survivors.” So it is our partners who recognize the value this brings to the community and are able to support it from the start. Not all communities have this chance. “

For more information and a complete list of providers and partners, visit the Family Justice Center website.

About Ren Valdez

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