Buried in a box of clippings, meeting minutes, letters and other artifacts was a note, written on yellow legal pad paper dated 3:35 p.m. Jan. 21, 1984.
“Married five years, 2-month-old child,” the note reads. “Husband tried to throw me out of house. If I left I would lose my rights. He tried to stop me on another occasion ... Husband came in and she wasn’t free to call again.”
Another note, written a few days later, reads: “I want to talk, I want to leave tonight. Last night (my husband) threw us out of the house. I went to a neighbor’s home until he went to sleep. I don’t work, my clothes are all I have.”
These small notes, filled with underlines and some doodles, were written by some of the first Citizens Against Spouse Abuse crisis hotline volunteers. Thirty years ago this month CASA filed for its letters of incorporation; it marks three decades of serving battered women and children.
“They used to say scream quietly so the neighbors wouldn’t hear,” said Marge Harlan, one of the founders of CASA and a longtime board member. “It was a struggle to get this off the ground, an uphill battle of convincing people abuse was something we needed to talk about openly. We got the ball rolling in bringing it out into the light.”
While abuse has likely always been in Sedalia, the first inclination of needing a women’s shelter — the original goal of CASA — didn’t happen until the fall of 1982 when the Rev. Marvin Albright, then-pastor of Emmanuel United Church of Christ, held a seminar at the church on spouse abuse. Harlan was in attendance that night and had recently been thinking about the need for victim’s services through her work as a psychologist.
“I had seen abused women in my office, but there was one woman who was just so distraught,” Harlan said. “I heard her stories and it really alerted me to just how trapped these women were. I hadn’t honestly given it a whole lot of thought before then, but between her and the abuse seminar, I knew it was time to start something.”
Harlan and Albright began recruiting citizens to be part of the Spouse Abuse Steering Committee, which was eventually renamed CASA. As the board took shape, one of its members, Freeda Swope, recruited “an excellent man ... who agreed to serve the on the board” and offer legal council: Stan Cox, former Pettis County prosecuting attorney and current District 52 state representative.
“I served on the board in the beginning and helped CASA get set up with their tax-exempt status papers,” Cox said. “Thirty years ago, people didn’t think a lot about domestic abuse and I became convinced that to provide protection for domestic abuse victims CASA was a very worthwhile endeavor.”
Funding was the main concern during CASA’s start. During the summer of 1983, volunteers campaigned for Sedalia voters to vote yes on a special election shelter fund that would impose a fee of $5 on marriage licenses and $10 on divorce decrees to help fund the abuse shelter. The measure was approved and CASA netted approximately $3,000 the first year.
Other budget woes plagued the organization, however, with a 1984 budget showing just $1,021 in the bank. That year also saw CASA being rejected as a new agency from the Sedalia-Pettis County United Way.
“We didn’t have any state or federal funding in the beginning and really, no one to show us how to get it,” Harlan said. “There wasn’t much oversight either. We asked other counties that had established women’s shelters how they ran their organizations, but it’s nothing like starting a not-for-profit now. We just saw a need and forged ahead.”
The first shelter
In February 1985 the board scraped together enough money to buy a residence at 209 W. Sixth St., which would become its first shelter.
A Third National Bank loan application from Jan. 11, 1985 shows CASA requesting a $14,000 loan to purchase the home with a down payment of $2,000 coming from the group. After it was approved, CASA paid $165.45 in mortgage costs each month.
According to Harlan, one of the group’s first goals was to have a permanent shelter; previously, volunteers had opened their homes to victims of abuse, but the CASA board wanted a space where everyone could be housed together.
“The house needed work,” Harlan said. “The basement was in dire shape, so we had volunteers from Whiteman Air Force Base come out to help. After everything was fixed, we just stuffed it with bunk beds.”
A proposed budget from 1985 shows $4,700 was allotted for “program supplies: food, shelter supplies and laundry.” Harlan said many items were donated and Albright had a “special gift for auctions.”
“He would go out and run into people he knew, lawyers he knew, and they would end up telling him ‘Oh, don’t worry about that, I’ll buy it for CASA’ so he didn’t end up spending too much of his money,” Harlan said.
Ten years later, CASA would move into its second shelter, still in use today, which offers eight residential rooms with private bathrooms, a large common area, staffing offices, a conference room, children’s play rooms and a large playground outside.
Vital community support
Through the years CASA has relied on volunteers and the generosity of the community to keep its doors open. In the beginning, Harlan said there was initial support for the group, but it was subdued.
“The community was supportive but was withdrawn. Not many people wanted to get involved,” Harlan said. “In fact, in the beginning I had a few phone calls from very conservative pastors who told me I was breaking up families by helping these battered women get away from their husbands, their attackers.
“Those phone calls stopped after a year or two.”
Harlan said she and the rest of the board worked hard to show a need in the community for a shelter and organization that helped women and children. Archives show the group’s work slowly progressing in Sedalia: May 7, 1987 marked Sedalia’s first Domestic Violence Awareness Week and notes show Harlan spoke at numerous civic clubs.
“The extension clubs were the best,” Harlan said. “These farm women were appalled at some of the stories I told them and they pretty immediately started to organize themselves to volunteer and answer the hotline calls.”
Harlan also credited her fellow board members, especially Albright, with CASA’s growth.
“Marvin was a great organizer. Whether or not you wanted to be, Marvin would organize you,” she said with a smile.
The next 30 years
Thirty years after its start, CASA is still going strong, said current Executive Director Lori Haney.
“I think if you look back 30 years ago, the movement against abuse was still in its infancy, so to have had a group start CASA at that time, I think, really shows how progressive and forward-thinking Sedalia was,” Haney said. “Having a shelter in a small, rural community was almost unheard of then. And it still amazes me to look back and see how far we’ve come; from a little residential house and a volunteer hotline to a 7,500-square-foot facility that offers court advocacy, free therapy, bilingual services, transitional programs and a host of other things.”
Harlan said she’s proud of the work CASA has done and its continued growth; however, its 30th anniversary is a little bittersweet.
“I think it’s wonderful CASA is celebrating its 30th anniversary, but a part of me wishes it wasn’t,” Harlan said. “Because if we didn’t have abuse, we wouldn’t need CASA.”
FROM THE ARCHIVES
“At the last meeting of the Steering Committee, it was decided that there should be a move toward establishing a not-for-profit corporation for the purpose of developing an ongoing program for care and support of the abused.”
— Agenda from Marvin Albright, one of the founders, to the Spouse Abuse Steering Committee dated Feb. 16, 1983, discussing the need for an organization and board of director suggestions.
“Because of the difficult financial conditions that have faced most of our agencies during the past year, and the uncertainty of the economic outlook for Pettis County ... the committee felt that it was our obligation to do the best we could to meet the needs of our existing agencies. For this reason we decided to admit no new agencies to the 1983-84 campaign.”
— Letter from Sedalia-Pettis County United Way Chairman Owen Smith to Marge Harlan, dated May 20, 1983, denying United Way funds to be allocated to CASA. Last year, approximately $34,500 was donated to the agency.
“CASA’s goal is to eventually establish a full-time center in a home that could serve up to five women and 15 children. CASA has projected that, with this project, its yearly budget would be approximately $30,000 a year ... this would cover housing costs and other expenses, including a salary for a part-time live-in supervisor.”
— Sedalia Democrat article, dated Dec. 15, 1983. CASA’s current shelter can house up to 45 women and children and its yearly budget is nearly $425,000.