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The nonprofit that started out as the Tri-County Citizens Against Sexual Assault is marking four decades of growth, including its expansion into serving victims of domestic and family violence.

The nonprofit CASA/Family Systems was chartered in July 1979 as Tri-County Citizens Against Sexual Assault.

The agency expanded its services in 1990. It changed its name and opened its own shelter for battered women and children in 1991, taking the beginning steps toward a more holistic service mission.

CASA/Family Systems launched a “40 for 40” capital campaign on Oct. 1. The campaign will run through Oct. 30, with proceeds to fund the renovation of the agency’s shelter.

‘We have evolved’

The “40 for 40” campaign is designed to raise $40,000 in recognition of the group’s 40 years of service, according to state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. She’s the executive director of CASA/Family Systems.

"We will end the month Oct. 30 with a drop-in at the Edisto Children's Center, where we will announce the results of our 40 for 40 campaign,” she said.

The drop-in will begin at 11 a.m. and include representatives from Silent Tears, a foundation launched in 2013 to support organizations that promote ending child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence in South Carolina.

“They will be making a big announcement on Oct. 30 here at CASA, and we’re going to have a drop-in for people just to come and see one of the many aspects of the work we do,” Cobb-Hunter said.

She said she is proud of the strides the organization has made over the past 40 years.

The agency waited until October to recognize its anniversary for a reason.

“October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. That symbolizes the evolution of the agency in 40 years. We started as a rape crisis center. We have evolved 40 years later into full-fledged family violence agency serving not just victims of sexual assault, but domestic violence. We also have a child advocacy center, the Edisto Children's Center,” Cobb-Hunter said.

The Edisto Children’s Center, which began work in 2006, addresses the prevention, investigation, assessment, referral for prosecution and treatment of child victims of physical and sexual violence. The ECC is now partnering with the Children’s Trust of South Carolina to deliver its Strengthening Family Program. The SFP is an internationally recognized evidence-based program that works to build parenting and family skills.

“We offer that program in Orangeburg and Bamberg counties, and we hope to be able to do it in Calhoun County as well,” Cobb-Hunter said.

Orangeburg County receives emergency food, shelter funds

The agency also has other programs.

“We do community groups for men and women who batter. We've got work that we do in the schools -- conflict resolution, anger management, all that kind of good stuff. We do community groups because not all domestic violence victims want to go in the shelter.

“So 40 years sounds like a long time, but we feel like we just started. It doesn't feel like 40 years. We started out with that long name. Our name now, CASA/Family Systems, is symbolic of the growth and how far we've come in 40 years,” she said.

Cobb-Hunter said she is particularly proud of the staff’s steady, consistent work over the years. CASA/Family Systems has 17 full-time employees and 19 part-time employees.

“I’m proud of the work we’ve done, the way we’ve done it and the difference that we’ve made in the lives of so many families in the tri-county area. This agency has just plodded along doing what we do and not making a big fuss or fanfare. We’re the kind of agency that unless you really need us, you don’t think about the fact that we’re here,” she said.

Cobb-Hunter thanks God for the agency’s longevity.

“I really do believe that it was in his hands. We’ve been through a lot and we’re still here. The most important role right now is to make sure we’re still here 40 years from now because, unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that the work we do is going to go away any time soon. There will always be a need for a CASA/Family Systems,” she said.

Cobb-Hunter added, “Our growth has been slow and steady and that has been good for us because it’s allowed us to focus on quality and making sure that our services are effective and deliberate in a way that matters.”

‘An evidence-based agency’

Labrena Aiken-Furtick, chief operations officer for CASA/Family Systems, said the agency serves approximately 100 to 125 families a year.

“We probably could do more if we could move people in and out a little quicker. But because there is a lack of affordable housing and employment, it’s hard to move them out to self-sufficiency as quick as we would like. They have to be able to leave when they’re able to sustain on their own,” she said.

Aiken-Furtick said the Edisto Children’s Center served 118 children and their families in 2018. A 2018 community impact report also reveals that 94 parents graduated from the Strengthening Families Program and that 3,911 individuals were reached through speaking engagements, Girl’s Circle, Boy’s Council, health fairs, community booth set-ups and Mentor to Violence sessions.

Cobb-Hunter said, “I look at the Edisto Children’s Center and look at where we were 15 years ago, when children who were victims of sexual or physical assault had to go to Charleston. I look at the fact that now all of the services are available here at the Edisto Children’s Center. We even have the medical piece in place now, which was just a tough one for us because of the lack of access to medical personnel who wanted to get involved in these kinds of things.”

There have been other improvements in the way sexual assault is handled.

“The Edisto Children’s Center is a one-stop shop for children who have been victims of physical or sexual abuse, but then I look at rape exams. We had such a problem here in the past with the hospital and victims being able to get a rape exam at the hospital. And now fast forward, thanks to the SANE nurse program and the leadership of the then-hospital administration – Tom Dandridge, Brenda Williams – we moved to where those exams are now routine and offered at the hospital,” Cobb-Hunter said.

She added, “That seems routine now, but when I think about how difficult it was for us to get that done, I think it’s important for people to know that it was not always the way it is now. That’s what I mean about we’ve made a difference in the lives of families.”

Aiken-Furtick said the 14-week Strengthening Families Program has made a difference in families’ lives by bringing kids and parents together in the same setting.

“The emphasis of it really is the importance of family time and communication,” she said.

Cobb-Hunter said, “We take a family portrait, frame it and give it to the parent at the end of the 14 weeks. What we’ve discovered is that there are so many families that don’t have an actual picture of mom, dads and the kids. The first time we did it and noticed the reaction, it was like, ‘Wow, it’s so meaningful.’ … It means the world to a lot of these families, particularly with some of the issues that they deal with.”

Cobb-Hunter said the programs are evidence-based.

“It’s not just us thinking, 'Oh, well, let’s try this. It might work.' We are an evidence-based agency. We are data driven and one of the things that we like to be able to say is that we can pretty much document the quality of our services and the work we do. And we’re still here 40 years later. Not only are we still here, but we’re thriving,” she said.

Alternative Methods, a batterers’ intervention program, is one such evidence-based program.

“The consistency of our Alternative Methods program is just steady as a rock. That program has evolved from just everybody and their brother thinking they can do it, to now -- because of the Legislature -- being run out of the solicitor’s office. Triple P (the state Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole) now has an involvement that they have not had in the past. So you’ve got all kinds of people running these programs, but we are still here,” Cobb-Hunter said.

‘We love what we do’

Cobb-Hunter says the jury is still out on new domestic violence laws.

“Magistrate’s court had its issues. So there was a lot of interest in moving domestic violence cases from magistrate’s court to general sessions court. I have not been able to document what difference that move has made,” Cobb-Hunter said.

“With magistrate’s court, you had a dedicated CDV (criminal domestic violence) court, where they heard only criminal domestic violence cases. With the change in the law in moving those cases to general sessions, what you’ve done is add to the already overcrowded docket, and they get mixed in with murder, robbery and all kinds of cases.

“So that singular focus that you had when you had in CDV court, whether at the city or the magistrate level, is lost because they’re all lumped in together. But in terms of how effective it is in this community, I think it’s still too early to tell how effective that change has been,” Cobb-Hunter said.

She is certain that the work her agency is doing to combat violence remains just as important as it was 40 years ago.

“We’re very appreciative of the consistent community support that we’ve received these last 40 years. We ask people to continue to work with us and pray for us as we move toward self-sufficiency and sustainability for the next 40 years. We love what we do, and we want to always be here to do it. It’s about the work, not any of us individually,” she said.

Cobb-Hunter added, “We are especially appreciative and grateful to the small towns with police departments who have stepped up and supported us through the Act 141 dollars: Holly Hill, Branchville, Eutawville, Santee and Bowman. ACT 141 is legislation that assesses tickets. It’s money that comes into the county to be spent on victim services.

“A lot of these small towns have not been able to spend the money on victim services because they don’t have victim services. So for years the money had just been accumulating, and some of the towns thought that it was important that CASA receives them, particularly since we don’t receive any of the county’s (Orangeburg County’s) ACT 141 dollars. ... All of that money the county receives goes to the sheriff’s department. And so we’re grateful to those small towns,” Cobb-Hunter said.

Aiken-Furtick thanked the community partners, including law enforcement, mental health and social service agencies, which the agency has worked with over years.

“We have worked with their directors and employees so we can move services forward for all of the clients that we serve,” she said.

“I like to compare CASA to the tortoise and the hare,” Cobb-Hunter said.

“The tortoise just keeps plodding along. We’re that turtle. We just keep plodding along because we see the finish line and we stay focused on that finish line. We’re not in a race to the finish line. We’re in a race to get the job done and to do it well. That’s what we have been trying to do for the last 40 years,” she said.

For more information about the services provided by CASA/Family Systems, call its administrative office at 803-534-2448 or the 24-hour hotline at 803-531-6211. CASA’s website can be accessed at www.CasaFamilySystems.com.

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Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD.

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