TRACY, Calif. (KGO) -- The phone lines have been busy this year at Chest of Hope, but for all the wrong reasons.
"For the year, we have received over 400 to 500 calls," said Merlyn Pittman, founder of Chest of Hope, a community organization in the Tracy area.
While there are no official numbers because many cases go unreported, agencies and support groups serving victims of domestic violence are reporting an increase in calls for help since the pandemic started.
"During COVID, it was very frustrating for families because they were locked in. They were actually in the house with the abuser 24/7. They got on each other's nerves more, you know. The physical got increased," Pittman said.
It is estimated that in California one-third of women have experienced some sort of physical violence from a partner.
But, even though women seeking help still make up the majority of calls, Pittman said Chest of Hope is also getting reports of abuse extending to other family members.
"Based on what mom has gone through with dad, she is taking it out now on the kids. Because she feels stuck, and it's because of them why she's not leaving. And then you have the father abusing the children as well," Pittman said.
Children who grow up in abusive homes are more likely to develop behavioral problems or disruptive behavior at school.
Chest of Hope has been helping victims of domestic abuse since 2011. It offers individual and group counseling, help with restraining orders, teen dating and parenting classes.
It also operates an emergency housing shelter that can accommodate up to 14 single women and two additional homes for families.
Patricia Alvarez Harrell went to Chest of Hope for help from an abusive ex-husband.
At first, she did not recognize the abuse.
"It was more of the intimidation. Cornering you and yelling at you, 'Nobody is going to want you. You're fat,'" Alvarez Harrell said.
Experts say domestic violence starts subtly at first with insults, name-calling, jealousy and possessiveness. But, then it escalates to threats and actual violence like kicking, shoving or choking.
"Since I didn't have the bruises and blood to show, I thought I just have to work on my marriage. Until finally, one day I did get the bruises and the blood. And it took me a while to muster up the courage to leave," Alvarez Harrell said.
Chest of Hope keeps supplies of clothes and toiletries in its office to give to women that flee their homes. Many leave without having time to pack their things.
"When they come to us, they come with nothing," Pittman said. "The husband may be at work and that's the only time they can get away so they don't bring anything. They just want to get out of the situation so they just run."
Alvarez Harrell first found refuge at a friend's house. But she said her ex-husband started showing up there. So she went to a sister's house but the stalking continued.
That's when she sought help from Chest of Hope, which placed her and her children in a safe house and helped her obtain a restraining order against her ex-husband.
But, even then the harassment continued.
"The abuse never stopped. It was pictures of me that he had from when we were married from years before that he released and posted everywhere."
Alvarez Harrell said her ex-husband also sent messages to her eldest son threatening to kill himself if the son did not come home.
Finally, she said that the district attorney advised her to move away for her own safety.
She moved to Colorado and found love again. She has remarried.
It's a happy ending that Chest of Hope wishes was celebrated more frequently in a society that tries to ignore domestic violence exists.
"When people go through cancer, there's victory. With domestic violence, it's the opposite. No one wants to talk about abuse. So when you have things like these, we need to celebrate that as well because someone survived," Pittman said.
Chest of Hope is in the middle of a campaign to raise $6 million dollars to build new shelters.
On Saturday, Oct. 8, it is hosting a community breakfast to raise awareness about domestic violence. The event is from 8 a.m. to 12 pm. at Guadalupe Center, located at 126 W. First St. in Tracy.
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