CASA 25th anniversary

April 01, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

When Vicki Sadehvandi took her job as director of Washington County's first help agency for abused women in 1977, she said, a police officer predicted she would be out of work within six months.

Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused - or CASA - would fold because domestic violence wasn't a real problem in Washington County, he said.

Twenty-five years later, Sadehvandi still has her job. And she's never been busier.

Domestic violence continues to be a "tremendous problem" countywide, she said.

CASA served about 100 families affected by abuse during the agency's first year.

Last year, CASA received more than 21,000 crisis hot line calls and served more than 2,100 new clients. The agency sheltered about 700 women and children from July 1, 2000, to June 30, 2001. CASA counselors worked with more than 2,000 batterers during the same time period.


Twenty-five years ago, Sadehvandi wondered how she would fill a four-drawer file cabinet. Today, victim files fill an entire room at the Hagerstown-based agency, Sadehvandi said.

CASA works with emotionally, physically and sexually abused women and children, displaced homemakers, homeless women, victims of sexual assault and incest, and abusers.

CASA's services include a crisis hot line, emergency shelter, counseling, support groups and career advice.

After 25 years, Sadehvandi is still surprised by the lack of value people place upon each other, she said.

"You really think you've seen it all until another case comes in," she said.

Nowhere to turn

Prior to August 1977, abused women in Washington County had nowhere to turn for help. They sought shelter from abuse in police cruisers or in hospital hallways, said Sadehvandi, 54.

Laws to protect victims of abuse - such as ex parte and protective orders and warrantless arrest policies - did not exist.

"The courts had limited powers. They could issue 'stay-away' orders," CASA co-founder Pat Cushwa said. "But a drunk with a gun doesn't pay much attention to a piece of paper."

A citizens' group, the Washington County Commission for the Protection of Battered Women, disbanded in 1976 after one year due to public apathy.

"There were no actual services for victims of domestic violence," Sadehvandi said.

Then Timothy Knode shot and killed his estranged wife in the living room of her parents' Hagerstown home.

A month before he killed Imogene Knode, Timothy Knode cut her throat with a razor blade. He was released on $500 bond the next day.

Imogene pleaded for help in a letter to the editor that she signed, "Helpless." She filed assault charges against her husband a week before her death in February 1977, but the warrant was never served because Hagerstown police couldn't find Knode.

Imogene's murder prompted renewed concern about the plight of battered women in Washington County, said Cushwa, a Williamsport councilwoman at the time.

Cushwa and Diane Weaver, who started the county Commission for the Protection of Battered Women, formed a task force to confront the domestic violence problem. CASA followed the Baltimore-based House of Ruth as the second domestic violence help agency in the state.

"There were some people around who thought we were a radical feminist group out to wreck marriages. But people soon learned we were out to help families," Sadehvandi said.

Coordinator hired

Cushwa and Weaver - who for six months took turns taking crisis calls at home - hired Sadehvandi to coordinate CASA's efforts after securing a $7,500 federal grant.

Sadehvandi worked with a $52 budget that first year, she said.

From her desk at the Community Action Council building in Hagerstown, Sadehvandi solicited area motels for room donations for battered women. She promoted CASA's mission during speaking engagements at area churches and civic group meetings.

"Soon checks started coming in the mail," Sadehvandi said. "They believed in what we were trying to do."

Until 1985, the CASA hot line was Sadehvandi's home phone. Hagerstown police patched domestic abuse crisis calls to her at all hours of the night, she said.

State funds in 1978 enabled CASA to launch the displaced homemaker program, which provides educational and training opportunities to women 30 and older who have lost income they depended upon due to separation, divorce, death or disability of the primary wage earner.

United Way money then paid for an additional staff member, and has since paid for such services as abuser intervention and the shelter for abused women and their children, Sadehvandi said.

State money in 1980 enabled CASA to start its battered spouse and rape crisis programs. Later that year, the U.S. Department of Labor selected CASA as the model program for the nation because of its comprehensive services for clients, Sadehvandi said.

CASA expands

Those services - and the number of clients served - continued to expand over the years.

CASA now employs 25 people and has a $900,000 annual budget, Sadehvandi said.

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