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CASA marks 20 years of helping

April 24, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Twenty years after the murder of a Hagerstown woman galvanized them, members of a group that helps abuse victims Wednesday celebrated their past and anticipated their future.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who addressed CASA's anniversary dinner at the Venice Inn, said she was struck that the group's staff was more interested in what it has not accomplished than what it has.

"What they were really interested in saying was, `Where do we go from here?'" she said. "It was really an inspirational morning. (But) it's sad to think about the reasons CASA had to be launched in the first place."

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To a large extent, the reason was the death of Imogene Knode, who was gunned down by her estranged husband in February, 1977.

Before her death, Knode wrote a desperate letter to The Daily Mail, which she signed "Helpless." "The police say they can't do anything to him. Will someone please tell me what I can do?" the letter said.

Within days of her death, Washington County residents Pat Cushwa and Diane Weaver formed CASA - Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused. That first year, the organization helped about 100 families, staff members said. Last year, the group served more than 3,000 and answered more than 14,000 hotline calls.

Cushwa recalled on Wednesday how difficult it was getting people to act. Earlier efforts to start groups like CASA failed because residents were not willing to admit the county had a domestic abuse problem until the murder, she said.

"It's the worst way to make public policy," Cushwa said. "The community was just not supportive. It was not a concept that was understood."

Cushwa said that for the first six months, she and Weaver ran the organization out of their homes. They helped abused women to motel rooms. Now, the organization has a full-time executive director and sponsors numerous programs, including counseling, homeless, children's and rape crisis programs.

Even after Knode's death, however, leaders said acceptance came slowly. Executive Director Vicki Sadehvandi said a law enforcement official told her in 1977 not to expect much work.

"When I first got the job, I was told I should look for another job because I wouldn't last six months," she said. "And here it is 20 years later and we're overwhelmed by the problem."

While there are still plenty of abused women and children, however, CASA's leaders said there has been a dramatic change in attitude. The roughly 200 people who attended Wednesday's dinner included Hagerstown Police Chief Dale Jones, the Washington County Commissioners, state delegates and other officials.

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