Helping victims of domestic violence
CASA Marion opens public outreach office and secure shelter in Ocala.
From left, Ian Womak, St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Chief and CASA board chair; Curt Bromund, Marion County Hospital District CEO; Lariana Forsythe, CASA of Marion and Pinellas CEO; Michelle Stone, Marion County Commission Chair; Billy Woods, Marion County Sheriff; Mike Balken, Ocala Police Chief and Ben Marciano, City of Ocala Mayor. [Photo courtesy of Marion County Public Relations]
A press conference was held Feb. 7 at the College of Central Florida to announce the local launch of the state certified domestic violence services provider Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA) Marion.
Members of local law enforcement, government, health care, community outreaches and clergy met at the Webber Center to share and hear details about efforts to open a certified victim’s service agency in Ocala.
CASA is a nationally awarded provider that offers a host of prevention, education, hot line and support services. It started in Pinellas County in 1977. CASA recently partnered with local agencies to open a walk-in help office and secure 24/7 residency shelter for victims and children in Marion County.
According to a July 2, 2023, “Ocala Gazette” article, the county’s previous state certified domestic violence victim services provider here was slated to close Aug. 1, 2023.The article stated that one funding agency suspended support citing “safety and accounting” while the founder of the provider, with a 50-year history of providing services, was quoted as saying “personal vendettas” were behind the closure.
Lariana Forsythe, CEO of CASA Pinellas and CASA Marion, stated in a text message that CASA Pinellas, a 501(c)(3) certified domestic violence center, which has served Pinellas County for 46 years, is now extending “their expertise and certification to serve Marion County as well.”
“(Our mission is) a society free of domestic violence,” Forsythe said.
Forsythe said CASA Marion started operations here Jan. 1 and has a 24/7 hot line and public outreach office in the Beacon Point Center at 717 S.W. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., Ocala. A temporary separate secure residence shelter is also operational. Forsythe hopes a permanent shelter facility location will open within six months.
The Pinellas CASA operation has a Family Justice Center that helps domestic violence victims navigate the legal system and assists with related legal matters like injunctions. The center is the only one of its kind in the state and earned a national level award in 2023. Forsythe said that center “works well in Pinellas” and that a similar center will be considered for Marion County.“We are hopeful to conduct a community scan in April to determine if this is the best solution for Marion County. Community input will be imperative to ensure this is the right solution for the Marion County community,” she wrote in a follow-up message.
Gaby Holton, senior director of program services for CASA Marion, said 24 domestic violence survivors, all female, have already been served by the outreach and 18 were housed in the shelter with children as young as two years.
Following the press conference, Ocala Mayor Ben Marciano expressed support for CASA Marion.
“We plan to work hand-in-hand on any domestic violence issues to make sure that people are getting the help they need. (CASA) is recognized as the best at what they do, and I know they will continue that in our community,” he said.
Rev. Frans Van Santen of Grace Episcopal Church in Ocala called the domestic violence survivor service “essential” to the community.
Curt Bromund, CEO of the Marion County Hospital District, said domestic violence survivor services are “essential” and praised those who worked to bring CASA to the Ocala area.
“This is how our community came together to tackle a crisis,” he said about filling the need for a comprehensive services provider here.
Bromund acknowledged the local Domestic Violence Task Force, city and county elected officials, Marion County Community Services and other agencies for helping establish CASA Marion, which should “significantly improve services for (domestic violence) survivors.”
Marion County Sheriff’s Office records indicate the agency worked on 2,468 cases involving domestic violence, with 2,763 total victims. MCSO also recorded five “domestic-related” homicides. Sheriff Billy Woods and the Domestic Violence Task Force were instrumental in bringing the CASA operation to Marion County. He said the area “faced a crisis”—the need for a state certified emergency shelter for domestic violence victims.
The July “Ocala Gazette” article stated that Woods asked Marion County Children’s Alliance CEO Beth McCall to chair the Domestic Violence Task Force.
Woods said he was “truly excited” about the “new ground” coming with CASA Marion. He called domestic violence related calls “the most dangerous type” regularly worked by the agency, which is “very transparent (and) collects robust data” for decision making. Woods said of all calls handled by MCSO, 18% are violent crimes and 35% of those are domestic violence calls.
“No other call (for service) comes close,” he said.
Woods praised AdventHealth and Department of Children and Families personnel for their efforts.
MCSO Lt. Paul Bloom said domestic violence victims are provided a packet of information about available services by responding deputies.
Ian Womack, St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Chief and CASA board chair, said the Pinellas outreach began in 1977 with “a three-bed facility” and now has a 100-person (residence) shelter and provides a Family Justice Center that can help victims navigate handling injunctions and the legal system.
Lt. Anthony Scarpati with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said CASA Pinellas is “much more than a shelter.”
Sherry Clester, CASA’s chief operating officer, said arrest and incident reports with state statute codes for domestic violence charges are forwarded directly to CASA. State statutes details requirements on law enforcement to make domestic violence victims aware of services and legal rights.
Womack said EMS first responders in his area often refer victims and are sensitive to the signs of abuse when responding to calls and how to interpret possibly misleading signs of injuries.
Ocala Police Department data for 2023 indicates the agency handled 661 domestic violence cases, which included 775 victims; 97 cases of dating violence, with 105 victims; and one domestic homicide.
OPD Chief Mike Balken said the area is fortunate to get a “quality” services provider that brings education and a (scheduled) Family Justice unit for domestic violence victims.
Balken said domestic violence is seen “over and over” and is repeat cases “predictable and preventable.”
He feels CASA Marion will “absolutely help” domestic violence victims in Ocala.
To learn more, go to casamarion.org
The 24-hour a day hotline may be called at (352) 722-2722