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Cassie Carli case sheds light on the dangers of domestic violence

Cassie Carli.jpg
Cassie Carli Foundation

The disappearance of Cassie Carli sparked nationwide interest before the search came to an end when her body was found in Alabama on April 2.

The story is a “worst-case scenario” for victims of domestic abuse, said Rosalyn Wik, executive director and CEO of Shelter House, a nonprofit organization that provides support resources for victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence.

“There is only one Cassie Carli, but there are hundreds of stories like hers,” said Wik.

In 2019, 105,298 crimes of domestic violence were reported to Florida law enforcement agencies, resulting in 66,069 arrests, according to the latest data from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

What’s disheartening for advocates like Wik is knowing that Carli got out of the bad relationship but still became a victim.

“She was doing everything right,” she added. “She got out of the relationship, she talked to her friends … it feels like a failure of the community.”

Carli failed to return from a meeting with her ex-boyfriend, Marcus Spanevelo, to exchange custody of their 4-year-old daughter on March 27. Her body was found a week later in a shallow grave while the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office was executing a search warrant in Alabama. Spanevelo has since been arrested and is charged with tampering with evidence and giving false information regarding a missing person investigation.

“It’s not the ending we wanted, obviously, but we’re hoping to provide closure to the family,” Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson said in a press conference last week.

‘A toxic home life’

According to a GoFundMe created last year, Carlie and her ex met in 2017 and had a tumultuous relationship early on.

The fundraiser was to help retain a lawyer for Carli as she and Spanevelo were in the middle of a custody battle over their daughter.

“I was swept up in hidden deceit known as charm,” Carli wrote. “This man was a master at the game of manipulation and though I could see all the warning signs of an abuser, I believed his excuses and became stuck in his web of narcissistic lies.”

"By the grace of God and great friends, I chose to end the relationship with him," she continued. "I knew that raising my daughter alone would be better than exposing her to a toxic homelife relationship."

Court records from 2018 show Carli filed a domestic violence injunction in Okaloosa County. The injunction was granted but dismissed a month later.

One of the barriers for victims of domestic abuse, said Wik, is access to legal help. That’s why Shelter House has two full-time attorneys who provide free legal help to clients.

“In the last fiscal year we represented 166 victims and provided legal advice to 435 clients,” Wik said.

But, Wik admits, the system isn’t perfect. It can be hard, for example, to get an injunction if a judge doesn’t believe someone is in danger.

“Unfortunately, there are times when people don’t believe victims,” said Wik. “Maybe it hasn’t gotten (physical) yet — that’s the keyword. There’s a legal threshold in order to get an injunction. You can’t do it based on someone’s gut feelings.”

On the law enforcement side, Sgt. Rich Aloy, public information officer for the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office says the victim advocates help victims navigate the justice system. SRSO has five on staff.

“The legal justice system can be unforgiving and it’s very technical,” said Aloy. “And you only get one shot at it. It’s not over after the arrest. Advocates help victims with the paperwork. We have some of the best in the state. They have great hearts.”

A majority of the mothers who have been helped by Shelter House continue to co-parent with their abuser. And children are commonly used to wield power or fear, said Wik. That’s why organizations like Safe Connections exist to provide safe spaces for visitations and exchanges.

Wik says having a safety plan is key.

“Our model is safety first,” she said. “It might mean an injunction, that might mean shelter or it might mean compensation to help victims relocate.”

Education

In her seven years at Shelter House, Wik said she has seen a shift in attitudes about domestic abuse.

“Victim blaming has not gone away but the social radar is getting better,” she said. “It’s not the victim’s fault. They are the ones being abused.”

What’s missing from public awareness is knowing what to do when they see someone who may be in danger.

“We’ve been taught to mind our own business,” Wik said. “If you see something, say something. One of the most common questions we get is ‘my friend is in a bad situation, what do I do?’ We have to educate the public well enough to know what to do, what the resources are.”

The biggest resource would be the 24/7 hotlines. Shelter House has two numbers. The domestic violence hotline is 850-863-4777 and the sexual assault helpline is 850-226-2027. The national domestic violence hotline is 800-799-7233.

“There’s no cookie-cutter situation,” said Aloy. “It’s never a bother to call us. You don’t want to be a victim.”

In memory of Cassie, the Carli family has created the Cassie Carli Foundation to provide support and resources. According to the website, #NeverGoAlone is a mission of the organization that will work to keep victims of domestic violence safe during child custody exchanges. The organization has raised over $25,000 from a separate GoFundMe.

“The Cassie Carli Foundation is ready to meet you where you are, and walk alongside you in your journey to freedom,” the website reads.

Another way to help: be a supportive person without judgment, said Wik.

“This is everyone’s problem,” she added. “One in every four women is a victim of domestic abuse. Everyone knows someone … we have to make this our problem.”