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Tom Hanks son' accused of abusing girlfriend in Sugar Land home

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A protective order was filed against Chet Hanks in Fort Bend County. He is accused of threatening to take his own life and hers, among other things.

Video Transcript

MAYRA MORENO: Welcome, everyone, tonight. Tonight's town Hall is about domestic abuse. So we are here tonight to talk about this issue that continues to affect the nation. Now, more than before, because of the pandemic, we have seen a high rise in domestic violence, abuse, and even murder. So just recently we reported that the Houston Area Women's Center has seen an increase in the number of calls to its crisis hotline. You can see some of the numbers there for yourself.

And it went up 65% in September. And that's compared to the same time last year. So you guys can see that huge spike right there. And just last week, I reported on the numbers. The organization Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, or ABDA, the numbers that they have been seeing. We're talking about 130% more people now seeking their services, once this whole stay at home order began.

And sadly, just last night, during leave at 5:00, during our newscast, we had breaking news where two people were killed in a domestic violence incident. And just hours ago, we found out that it was actually three people who died. The shooter, he was a relative of these folks. And he turned the gun on himself. So a total of five people were shot in this home yesterday.

So you guys can see, this is a crisis that continues to plague the nation and here in Southeast Texas. And this is not just happening to women. But it's also happening to a lot of men. So with me tonight, I have a great team of panelists here. So I want to introduce you guys to them, as we get started.

First, we have Amy Smith. She's with the Harris County Domestic Violence coordinating council. We have Chau Nguyen with the Houston Area Women's Center. We have Maisha Colter with ABDA-- Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse.

We also have Sydney Zuiker. She's with Crime Stoppers of Houston. And we also Yesenia Garcia. She's the sister of a domestic violence victim. And also, Jennifer Vasquez, a survivor of domestic violence. So thank you so much for joining me in this conversation. Don't forget to unmute yourself when you start talking. And then, if you can, again, just be yourself as others begin to talk as well.

So first off, I want to start off with the group of leaders from each organization. Amy Smith, want to talk to you first. Tell me a little bit more about what you have been seeing this year-- obviously, because of the pandemic, and the services that you all provide.

AMY SMITH: Well, we've been, of course, a huge increase in domestic violence. We meet weekly with our law enforcement partners. And what we have discovered during these weekly meetings is not only has domestic violence risen, but the severity of the crimes have gone up. What I mean by that is that there are now felony call-- there are more felony charges being filed, which are aggravated assaults, your impeding breath, charges like that, as opposed to some of your misdemeanor cases, which is just an assault, a simple assault, if any assault is simple. But it causes pain, but it doesn't rise up to the level of a felony.

So what we're seeing is there's a lot of-- there's a lot of cases, and they're more severe. As far as domestic violence homicides are concerned, in the city of Houston, actually, the domestic violence homicide rate has gone down. But in the county, it has gone up. In unincorporated areas, it's gone up. And we're not sure why that is.

We do know that the Houston police department has a lot of initiatives that they're working on right now. So there's just a bunch of different things that are happening right now, trying to figure out how we can help and try to get our numbers to go back down. So not only are our pandemic numbers surging, so theirs our domestic violence numbers.

MAYRA MORENO: Wow. Chau Nguyen, let's talk about what you guys have been seeing. I just mentioned some of those numbers with the Houston Area Women's Center. I mean, these are just huge, staggering numbers that we're talking about.

CHAU NGUYEN: And Mayra, first of all, thank you so much for offering us as advocates, and my colleagues here, and survivors, and families of survivors, the opportunity to talk about this, to share it, so that the public knows that help is available, that they can turn to agencies like ours and get help. We are seeing in the hotlines, very similar to the reports that Amy just talked about, the severity of the calls.

You know, there are a lot of survivors who don't turn to law enforcement, who don't feel comfortable. And they call our hotlines, and other hotlines around town, to get support and to get that crucial planning for safety. Safety planning is so important. Because we know that sometimes leaving isn't always the best time. It can be the most dangerous time. And it turns into what we are seeing on ABC 13 and other media outlets, these domestic violence murders, murder suicides, the rates of homicides going up.

You published our hotline calls. We are seeing a surge and a spike. Callers are calling desperate for help, for housing, for emergency shelter, to get that real-time response, and sometimes just for support, to navigate, sometimes, a very complicated situation. Relationships are complicated. There's children involved. The economic pressures that we're seeing during this pandemic is compounding the violence that we're seeing.

So we know that this is a real concern, and it's creating this recipe for domestic violence disaster.

MAYRA MORENO: Thank you. And with that, Maisha Colter with ABDA, I know we've talked about these issues, and what you guys do to help people. And Chau was mentioning how often children involved. I know the organization works really closely with these victims, to try to help them and the children. Explain that.

MAISHA COLTER: Sure. We are helping the victims by providing them with access to the legal system, so that they can pursue a recourse for themselves, which includes getting custody of their children, getting a divorce, but more importantly getting those protective orders. As my colleagues just identified, the danger that we're seeing in the types of abuse that have been happening in this time with COVID is much more extreme. The risk for lethality is there.

And so we try to make sure that we prioritize our clients' safety and the safety of their children by pursuing protective orders on their behalf. One of the things that I want to point out is that since the pandemic has been in effect, we've had the opportunity to provide protective orders to a considerable number of people. But what we also have done in the last several months is notice that our permanent or lifetime protective orders have increased substantially.

So for example, in 2019, we were able to get five lifetime protective orders for five different clients. In June, July, and August, we got five different protective orders, lifetime protective orders, for five different clients in space and time. So again, the lethality is high. And we have to prioritize safety first, and certainly consider the children in the household, by making sure that our clients have the ability to get them in their custody, keep them in their custody.

Because we know that even after separation, if they have to exchange children, that is a risk that they would incur, when they're going back and forth with their abuser. So if they have a protective order in place, we can put in place parameters around how an exchange of children will occur, and even, in some instances, restrict exchanging the children if we think that person may Pose a danger to the children that are part of the family.

MAYRA MORENO: So a lot that obviously goes into it. And I think, while I have you, Maisha, I'm sure a lot of the victims feel scared and know what's at stake here. So I would imagine that keeps a lot of them from even starting that first step, which is seeking help.

MAISHA COLTER: Sure. Yeah, there's always the resistance to leaving, partly because they don't want to put themselves at higher risk. And again, it is important for people to understand the risk and danger actually increases at the point that a person is leaving. Domestic violence is about power and control. And when the perpetrator is realizing that they're losing control, meaning that they don't have that person at hand in the household anymore, and the risk is that they will not return, when they start to shore up their ability to get out of the relationship, and that person loses control and has less to lose by taking more risks, and being more violent, and being more volatile with their victim.

And so we always try safely plan around leaving. And we try to advise our clients on methods and things that they can do to protect themselves, and to protect their children, as they leave, so that when they leave, that they remain safe and unharmed, as they stay away from their abuser.

MAYRA MORENO: Thank you, Maisha. Now, I want to go to Sydney Zuiker with Crime Stoppers. So we know you guys oftentimes help people, unfortunately, when the crime has been fatal, and try to seek justice for these victims. But you also do a lot of advocating in the community, to try to prevent these incidents from even happening in the first place. Talk to me a little bit about that.

SYDNEY ZUIKER: Yeah, so we do a lot of work around looking at our crime rates, homicide up 47%, aggravated assault up 29%. And we work really hard to educate our community on what that means. Why should every single person care about those rates? Just last week, we released a list that our director of Victim Services and Victim Advocacy Andy Kahn has put out on 60 plus people who've been murdered by offenders out on multiple felony bonds.

And if we look at the case last week where there was seven homicides in one day, and one of those was a domestic violence case scenario, this is happening far too often. And so in our programming, all of our prevention programming, we're talking about hey, you've got to have these conversations in your household. And you've got to hold everyone, our leaders, accountable for what's going on.

And when we're talking to people all in the community, even all the way down to students, we're talking about what is a healthy relationship? We start in middle school and high school, defining that for kids, for middle schoolers for high schoolers, who may not have anyone who can have that conversation with them. So we're teaching them, what is a trusted triangle? Who can you trust at home, and at school, and in your community, so that they can learn what this looks like, so that hopefully, they will not find themselves in these situations in the future?

MAYRA MORENO: And as we go through these questions and have this conversation, if you want to jump in and say something more, please, by all means, just let me know. I want to go to Yesenia Garcia now. Your sister, Ashley Garcia-- unfortunately, we saw what happened in her situation. She was with an abusive boyfriend. And after talking to you many times and interviewing you, you said, well, we kind of heard from an ex-girlfriend and what whatnot that he was doing the same to her.

And we talked about how you wish you could have done more. Knowing what you know now, just tell me, what kind of advice can you give to other people who may be in a similar situation?

YESENIA GARCIA: Starting off with, you know, the position as me as a sister. I-- the advice that I would give out to people that possibly think that, you know, a sister or friend is going through this is try not to judge them. Because by you judging them, it's-- they're just going to be afraid to even tell you. And I think that's what happened with me and my sister.

And you know, every day I think about it. If I want to have I've given her those life lessons, or being on top of her, or asking her questions, and make her feel comfortable with me, then maybe I could have, you know, knowing about this guy. And she would have felt comfortable telling me what was going on with them.

And I mean, I go back, thinking of us, being in high school. I always used to defend her with anybody in her past relationships as well. She would always call me. But for some reason, with this guy, I mean, she just-- I guess I just started being a little bit too hard on her on, you know, hey, get your life together. Hey, let's do this. Let's do that.

I think and the advice that I will give out to people is do not make them feel like they're getting judged. Make them feel comfortable. Make them-- you know, that you're with them, that regardless of anything, you're going to support them, and that, you know, just do it the right way.

And to domestic violence, it all starts from us woman. And anybody going through it, just to stop it. Walk away. And you know, I mean, honestly, that's the only thing that I can think of.

MAYRA MORENO: Yeah. And when she mentioned, don't judge them, I saw a lot of you nodding your heads. Who wants to jump in here, when it comes to this? Because that's tough. That's difficult, is how you love this person. How do you help them from getting out of this toxic relationship that you see, but they don't see?

AMY SMITH: Well, I can--

MAISHA COLTER: Can I say one thing about what Yesenia just said? Yesenia, I'm so sorry for your loss. But one of the things that's key for everybody to understand is that perpetrators use isolation. They use emotional abuse as a tool for power and control. So even if you had been very patient and loving and nonjudgmental to your sister. On the other side of the equation was this person who was using isolation, using those things.

Those are warning signs that people should know about. So if you have a friend who starts to slowly disappear and shrink away from who they were before they were in a relationship with someone who's a perpetrator of domestic abuse, that's a sign for you to sort of recognize something else is amiss here. And so that's something that we can educate the community about and make people aware, that those are all tools of abusers.

It's not just the isolation. But it's the intimidation. It's the making someone feel emotionally less than who they were, deteriorating their self-esteem. Those kinds of things were probably happening to Ashley, as they happened to many, many victims. And you won't know that until you start to recognize those signs and be able to let them see that that's what's happening to them, and help them out.

But always be open, and always be nonjudgmental and willing to come alongside and help them out of that situation.

AMY SMITH: And kind of to follow on what-- [INAUDIBLE].

CHAU NGUYEN: Go ahead, Amy.

AMY SMITH: I was just going to say-- kind of follow up on what Maisha said, which everything she said is great. One of the other things the coordinating council does is we do an adult violent death review team. And so we review domestic violence homicides. What we found during one year of review is that a lot of the victims in our cases, in our cases, did not understand that they were in a domestic violence relationship. They just thought it was a relationship. And they just thought that's how it was supposed to be.

So again, we have so many tools out there for prevention. But you also have to take into consideration kind of what Maisha said. What is that victim going through? The only person that is an expert on what a victim is going through is that victim. Because she's-- she or he-- is experiencing something that nobody else has experienced. Regardless of how many past relationships they had, or anything like that, it's just that it's their experience. It's what their abuser is doing to them.

And it could be it could be different-- I mean, he could have had a whole slew-- or he or she could have had a whole slew of past relationships. But each relationship is different. And kind of to talk a little bit about what Sydney says, when you talk about safety planning, in this day and age, in Harris County, we have to take into consideration that no matter what law enforcement does, that there is a very real possibility that defendant will be out on bond.

So when we're talking about safety planning, we're talking about safety planning for when the victim stays, when the victim goes, when the victim presses charges, when the perpetrator is out on bond. We're trying to-- we have-- now we're working on four different safety plans. So it's hard to imagine.

And what I want to get across, because I was in a meeting this afternoon, and someone said this. And I was like, no, that's not the answer. What I want to get across is, let's stop blaming the victim. Let's stop blaming her for her, for what she's-- she's not doing-- he or she is not doing anything. It's not the victim's fault this is happening. We need to get the responsibility of where it needs to be, and that is on the abuser.

The abuser is the person that needs to be held accountable and needs to stop their behavior. Until we stop blaming the victim, we're not going to even start to tackle this problem. It is not the victim's fault. It is not the victim's responsibility. It is the perpetrator that needs to be held accountable, and it's his fault.

CHAU NGUYEN: Amy, can I add something? And I think Maisha and Amy, you touched upon it, and Yesenia. Thank you so much for coming out here. And I think your voice will affect and change somebody else's outcomes. We often do this, right? As girlfriends, as friends, why don't you just leave? That's not a helpful thing to say to your friend, right?

But what we do have-- and we do this across other agencies, Sydney, Crime Stoppers, [INAUDIBLE], ABDA, is a tool we use called the three R's, to recognize, respond and refer. So Maisha talked about recognizing those signs of abuse-- isolation, threats, intimidation, stalking, looking at your phone. Those are healthy things in a relationship. And responding, like Yesenia said, in a place of non judgment. I hear you. You don't deserve to go through this. These are things that are very easy, and that we don't forget to-- we forget, often, to do.

And then finally, the most important thing is there are resources out there. There is a phone call. There is a chat. There is a website, where they can just call and seek help from a friend. That's our hotline number. We receive thousands of calls. It's 24/7. We also have a chat option on our website.

But they can call and seek support. Maybe they don't know what they're going through. Maybe they just need to talk to somebody. Our trained advocates and counselors can do that. So really think about just, recognizing, responding, and saying hey, help is available. You're not alone. You never deserve this. We believe you.

MAYRA MORENO: Thank you, Chau. And I think it's going to take the entire community to really tackle this head on. And so now I want to go to Jennifer Vasquez. Jennifer, you're a survivor. I interviewed you a couple of weeks ago, and you told me about your situation. And you found yourself married to a man who you said completely changed.

It started with verbal abuse, and then in turn physical. Briefly tell me about that. And then what gave you the courage to finally just say no, I need to get away?

JENNIFER VASQUEZ: Hi. Like I mentioned, it started with verbal abuse. And at first, I kept making excuses for him. But then, once it started like with the whole physical thing, I'm like what am I doing? Like why am I allowing this? Like I shouldn't be allowing this. And I think like my final-- my final thought was when the prosecutor told me, they're offering him prison time. And I worry. I worry about-- I worry the pillow that you lay your head on, he said.

He said that a lot of these times, when they know they're facing prison time, they tend to go towards you, he's like, and then maybe kill himself, you, and then maybe him or just you. So he's like, I really need you to get out of there.

And I remember immediately calling my sister. My sister had already offered help. But you know, like I said, and like everybody's mentioned, and Yesenia as well, it's really easy just to say just get out. You know, just get out. What are you doing there? Like you've always been on your own.

It's not easy. It's easier said than done. But it's not easy to just get up and go. That time, I did. I did get scared. And that's when I really did. I picked up my phone, and I said, I need to go. Because I still managed to stick around for a couple of nights. But throughout the time, he was sleeping upstairs, and I was in our-- the bedroom that was ours. And he'd come home every night drunk, 5:00, 6:00 in the morning.

And he wanted me to know that he was coming home at that time. So he'd like barge in, and be like, can I talk to you? And I'm like, oh my God, like what's going to happen tonight? Because that's when the second situation happened, the same thing, like 5:00, 6:00 in the morning. And that was the time that he finally got arrested.

MAYRA MORENO: Yeah, and you talked to me about your frustration with the system.

JENNIFER VASQUEZ: Yes.

MAYRA MORENO: So I want to talk about that. I know many of the women in stories that I've covered, especially in the last few weeks, because last month was domestic Violence Awareness Month-- a lot of these women and men involved in these situations, they feel like the system doesn't help them. Some of these people get low bonds, and they're out.

That's a big issue. What can we, as a community, do to sort of make this be heard even louder? Where do we begin to try to tackle this? Sydney, do you want to go ahead and talk to us?

SYDNEY ZUIKER: Sure. You know, there's quite a few things here. I think that we need to really advocate on behalf of victims, and think about-- even if their-- even if their perpetrator does get jail time, they're going to come up for a parole hearing every couple of years. So they're like living in this constant state of fear and anxiety. And then even the things that are parameters around that can make that come up every-- like really, really frequently. And so that's a problem.

But I also think that we need to be lifting the voices of all of these survivors up. And we need to be willing to listen to, what is their experience in this? Not what do we think their experience is, but what are they living? What challenges are they seeing in the system? And then making sure that every victim that comes across any of our public safety type organizations is directly connected to a resource that can help them.

AMY SMITH: And also, first, first of all, Jennifer, thank you for sharing with us. Because I know it takes a lot to do that. So I appreciate that. Also, I would like to say to you that the strongest people I know are domestic violence survivors. Because you had to do what you did to survive.

And Yesenia, I am so sorry about Ashley. But sometimes, it-- again, it's-- every situation is different. But to follow up on what Sydney said, we as a community need to be outraged about what is happening. We as a community need to recognize that domestic violence is a pandemic. We have the pandemic that's going on. But we've had this pandemic of domestic violence for years.

I know that both Maisha and Chau and Sydney, we all want to be put out of business. We would love not to be able to-- we would like to go-- I don't know. I would like to own a flower shop. But I just think that that's what we need to be doing.

But it's also not just a women's issue. It's an everybody in the community issue. And so it's very important to remember, we have our partners and allies from all walks of life. But we all need to band together, and to realize, and to recognize, this is a very serious problem.

We need judges to take it seriously. We need law enforcement to investigate. We need courts not to be so clogged up that it's taking months and months and months to get a protective order and years and years to get a case through the criminal justice system. It-- we all need to stand up and say, I get, we need bond reform. However, you're leaving the victims behind. Or I get we need criminal justice reform. But you're leaving the victims behind.

And that's really what we need to do. As Andy from Crime Stoppers always says, which I think he stole from me, but we won't talk about that right now-- is the only person that is-- the only unwilling person in the criminal justice system is the victim. They didn't ask to be the victim. Everybody else chose their role in the system, whether it is a law enforcement agency, a prosecutor, if it's a social service provider, or it's the offender.

They chose the role. The victim did not choose that. So we need to make sure that everything we do is victim centered, is trauma informed, and is making sure that we get the best outcomes that we can get for our survivors. The coordinating council has several projects that we're working on, that we're trying to get stuff done. And we're trying to get everything taken care of that we can do.

We're trying to work within the systems to make changes in the system. But change is hard. Change is not easy. And we have-- keep having to go through different entities, different administrations, different aspects. And it's kind of like we sometimes have to start over at the beginning. But we're working on it.

And as I always say when I meet with a victim, your story is important. Your story is going to make a difference. I can't guarantee you it's going to be today, tomorrow, this year, or next year. But because of you, you are making a difference. And your story will help someone. And it's definitely going to be making a difference.

And I promise you-- and I never make promises that I cannot keep. I promise you, one day, one day, we will be able to make a difference, and be able to help, and hopefully eradicate domestic.

CHAU NGUYEN: One other thing I want to add, Amy, you touch on such important points. We're talking about responding to crises. We're talking about empowering survivors. And Sydney touched on this, which is the youth violence prevention piece, stopping the violence before it happens, shifting the culture, and how we perceive relationships, gender dynamics. To tolerate violence is intolerable.

So really looking at social emotional learning in schools, primary prevention, shifting that change, that paradigm shift from it's OK for a boy to speak this way to a girl, or a boy to behave this way-- it's not OK. It really does begin with prevention or at a young age. And we really need to push for that, too.

SYDNEY ZUIKER: It's a whole cultural shift. For us, and what we believe at Crime Stoppers, is that it takes all of us. It can't be one person or one teacher. It has to be us building, this overall village. I mean, it really does take a village to raise children. I know that that's such a cliche thing. But that is something that has to be built.

Community has to be built. It's not just going to happen. It's not just going to fall into our laps. We're not just going to magically see change. We have to, every single one of us, in every single one of our individual households, shift the way that we're talking, shift what we think is appropriate, what we're taking in on a screen, what we're allowing our kids to say, and what we're allowing ourselves to say to and of other people.

It has to be all of us coming together. Because even if you don't have a kid in your life, there's some kid out there that's watching you. And so it has to be all of us.

MAYRA MORENO: Yeah. And as we're talking about the whole community as a whole, and helping each other when it comes to this, I want to talk again about what happened to Ashley. Yesenia, I know, when we originally had the interview, the day after your sister was killed, you said a lot of the neighbors saw that this guy was dragging my sister. A lot of the neighbors heard. A lot of the neighbors this, that, and the other.

And you questioned it. And you said, would my sister still be here, had these people called police right away, had these people said something right away? Let's talk about when us as a community should pick up that phone and call 911 and say, hey, I'm seeing this? We need to get someone out here. So tell me more about what you heard that time around, and the frustration you're feeling.

JENNIFER VASQUEZ: Honestly, it's-- I can't even explain how I felt that day. I went back to the apartments to try to collect her belongings. And the neighbor that actually witnessed everything came to speak to me. And I did go off on him. I told him, I mean, you saw everything from the parking lot, all the way, him dragging her upstairs.

How in the world did you not pick up the phone and call? Like, what made you not take that step? Like, what stopped you? And his response was just that he didn't want to get involved. And I didn't tell him-- I was like, my sister could have probably been here if you would have picked up that phone earlier. And the only thing that I can say is, if you ever see, witness anything like this, don't hesitate. I mean, I'm not saying get involved and-- just basically, call the cops.

Pick up the phone. Record if you have to record, I mean from a distance, or from your window or something. But something is better than nothing, you know. And you know, I was really frustrated that day. And I mean, just the fact that I knew he saw everything was just overwhelming and devastating. And I just-- I wish-- I wish I could have been that neighbor that night.

I wish I would have been there. I know for a fact, I would have picked up the phone. I'm always-- I live in apartments. So I'm always listening to every little sound that I hear. I'm always looking through the window, if anything's going on. And you just, you can save a life if you just pick up the phone.

MAISHA COLTER: Mayra, can I add to--

MAYRA MORENO: Yeah.

MAISHA COLTER: That? One of the things that we have to recognize is that domestic violence is a crime of secrecy. And it festers. And it manifests itself in shame, and fear, and all of these things. And as we talk about shifting the responsibility from the victim and blaming the victim, we also need to take responsibility as a society, and recognize that this cannot be a secret anymore, and that when you do see these types of things, that you should not retreat, but that you actually should say something.

And again, you don't necessarily have to intervene as a third party, and get into a physical altercation. Because these are dangerous situations. We have law enforcement who are charged with intervening, and they wound up getting killed. So you have to be very judicious about how you respond, and careful about what you do as far as intervention is concerned.

But if people continue to look at it as something that is just between the two people, and that it is a secret, or that it's just not my business, then it will continue to fester. And it will continue to devastate our communities. So we really have to recognize that we do have a role, and we have a responsibility, and that we can intervene in safe ways. And we can certainly change the mindset about not acknowledging that this is just something between the two people in the intimate relationship.

It's a society-- societal ill. And if we change as a society in the way that we construe it, then it will diminish. It will get-- it will become less. Another thing that we have to recognize is that there are interventions for those who are perpetrators of abuse. ABDA runs the state's largest BIP program-- Battery Intervention and Prevention, which is psychoeducation for those people who have been identified as perpetrators in relationships.

They can seek help themselves. They can get help by being referred by law enforcement, as a result of them being charged with a crime, whether it be a misdemeanor or felony. There are things that we can do to intervene on behalf of the person who's doing the behavior that we want to stop. And so that's another thing that people need to be conscious of, that there are things that are available in that regard, too.

The whole system problem-- we need to look at the whole problem-- not just the needs of the victim, not just the needs of the children involved, but also the needs of the perpetrators. Change the way that they think. Change the way that they behave within those relationships. Because I will tell you that most perpetrators don't go around punching and slapping their bosses. They don't go around yelling and abusing other people outside of that intimate relationship. So they are fully capable of functioning in a healthy and appropriate way. They are making choices.

And once we, again, start to acknowledge that these are choices that are being made by adults, primarily, even though children and teenagers are also perpetrators of domestic abuse, we can help them to acknowledge that wrong behavior and do something different, so that, again, we diminish the problem, and hopefully put ourselves out of business at some point. But my job of choice when I get put out of business is as a food critic.

MAYRA MORENO: There we go. Everybody has a backup plan.

MAISHA COLTER: Thanks, Mayra.

MAYRA MORENO: I want to get to a couple of viewer questions and concerns here. One of them, Tracie Lee from [INAUDIBLE]. She said, I'm still having flashbacks of what happened to me last September. I really never had a chance to talk to a counselor or a therapist. It's really taking a toll on me and my health.

She did say with ABDA right now, trying to get a divorce from my soon to be ex-husband. And ABDA already helped me get a lifetime protective order on him in November of last year. She said, I need to move on. But I'm still struggling.

My soon to be ex-husband got four years probation. Does anyone know where I can get counseling? And I guess this is maybe the next step that we should talk about. Let's say you did get the help that you felt you needed at the time. But you still are having to deal with years of that abuse. Where does someone like--

MAISHA COLTER: Well, she could actually-- she could actually come to us. We now have in-house trauma counseling. She might not have known that if we worked with her on the legal side of things. But all of us have some ability to help with individual counseling. I know not just ABDA-- [INAUDIBLE] does it as well. And we're available to just address the emotional needs and the emotional fallout related to domestic abuse, for sure.

CHAU NGUYEN: Mayra, I should add that right now our counseling services, both individual and support groups, have gone virtual. So a lot of our survivors are taking on Zoom. And we're doing 38 support groups now per week. So our resources, just like ABDA's and [INAUDIBLE], are always available and free of charge, and always confidential.

SYDNEY ZUIKER: Right.

MAYRA MORENO: OK. So here's another viewer question slash comment. This is [INAUDIBLE]. He said, how can victims of domestic violence be more inclined to call and report the abuse to the police? He also said, what can the police do better to gain and maintain the trust? Who wants to take that one?

AMY SMITH: I can take that one. It depends. I mean, we can't tell a survivor what's the best course of action. It could be that calling the police is the best course of action. But it doesn't necessarily mean that that's the best course of action. So there's a lot of different options. And again, it goes back to what that victim is, and how that victim feels.

As far as the law enforcement response, in Harris County, in Houston, we have a pretty good law enforcement response. Most of our large agencies have a family violence unit that does some family violence investigations. The Houston Police Department is doing some proactive things right now about going out into the community, where there's high risk, where there's high calls for service, and actually going out and checking on victims. That is a great program that they are currently able to do right now.

So there's a lot of things that are happening. But when you look at Harris County in general, there are about-- well, on average-- and I'm sure it's going to go up this year. But on average, there's about 42,000 calls to domestic violence-- to law enforcement for domestic violence services. And last year, there were 17,000 charges, domestic violence charges filed at the Harris County District Attorney's office.

So as you can see, there's a huge difference between the number of people that actually get charges filed, as opposed to the number of calls for service. And it could be that a lot of it is that-- most of the time, they just want the violence to stop. There's a lot of things that occur when the police are called, that there's a lot of unattended things that happen.

So it-- the victim can get into all sorts of systems. They can get in the protective order system. They can get into CPS. They can get into-- if they could be getting evicted, there's lots of other systems that are playing at them. We have a video that we always show. It's called Rachel's Story. And it shows Rachel making the call, and then everything that happens to her.

And on top of everything happening to her, she has to be in protective order court. She has to meet with the prosecutor. She's getting evicted, everything. And it's all falling on the same day. And in the meantime, she has two kids who need cupcakes for school, and you have a band concert. So there's a lot of other stuff that's going on.

Again, it goes back to, that victim is going to know what's best for them. And let's respect what those decisions are. And instead of saying, do you want to press charges, you know-- it's against the law. Like, let's do it. You don't ask a bank robbery victim if they want to press charges.

So let's take that equation out. Let's let the law do what the law is supposed to do. And if there's enough evidence to proceed with charges, then let them file charges, regardless of of-- I would say regardless of the victim wanting to, but at least taking that off, taking the burden of that decision off the victim, and making sure that there are services that are available.

Also, our law enforcement agencies are partnered with our police agencies as well. [INAUDIBLE] has a great partnership with the Houston Police Department for several different initiatives they're running. The Bridge in Pasadena has a great partnership with the Pasadena Police Department. They are also running a pilot program on some things out there, too. So there's lots of things that are happening and that are going on in the community.

MAYRA MORENO: [INAUDIBLE], another victim, she actually emailed me not long after we talked a little bit about having this town hall tonight. She said, I would like to speak to you about domestic violence. I have not had any justice, she said. I have a lot of documentation.

It's a thing of anger and control. The women, because they're scared to say anything, it is very difficult to talk about. She said, my ex broke my collarbone. And for months, I was pretty much in shock, which is a system-- symptom, I should say, of PTSD. If you don't report everything within 24 hours, you'll basically not be taken seriously, she wrote.

I took many steps to try to get my ex charged, to no avail. I'm a professional and work for M.D. Anderson. And I continue to just move. It's taken a financial toll on me, as I have to continue to fight for custody for my son. The lawyer just takes advantage of the situation as well. The court lets all of this happen. Yes, we need change.

And she said, consider my story, is what she emailed me. Maisha, do you want to talk about that? I know you guys work very closely, your lawyers, with victims. What kind of advice can you offer her?

MAISHA COLTER: So one of the things that we often tell our clients is their options, as far as leaving, what it will look like, if they decide to move forward with either a custody case or divorce, the length of time that it might take. So in most instances, if a person is interested in leaving their abusive partner, whether they be married or in a relationship where they share children, we talk first about safety planning and what that will entail.

And then we talk to them about what needs to be filed on their behalf to get into court. And those things can happen in pretty short order, if the person is ready to make that step. So they just really need to reach out, apply for services, and identify what their legal needs are. We help them with that.

Sometimes, they come in thinking, oh, you know, I just need to get custody of my children, or I just need to get a divorce. But sometimes, when we talk to them and examine their particular situation, we advise them that a protective order might be warranted. We talk to them about what's at stake for them when they leave the relationship, and what is available to them by way of relief.

So they can get child support. They can get access to property, whether that be 401(k), houses, things that they're entitled to as a result of them pursuing that legal remedy. And so the important thing is for the person to be comfortable in their mind with moving forward, and recognizing that we will guide them through the process, that they don't have to know the law, necessarily.

All they have to have is confidence in the people who are going to take them through that process. And we can take them all the way through completion. We do it day in and day out. Last year, we helped over 5,000 victims and their children to get out of these types of situations. We are experts in doing that. And that's what we provide to them, at no cost to them. But they just have to be willing and able to say, I'm really going to do this. I really need to keep moving forward.

Then, we help them to identify resources, while they're going through it. Because sometimes, it might be an economic hardship for them to leave. And we know that. And so we might help them get shelter, and get, you know, other assistance that will help them through the process, so that they don't have the burden and the pressure of the economic dynamics that happen when you leave an abuser, especially if the abuser is primary earner, and there's a risk financially to them to do that.

So we work through all of these dynamics. We have clients that are with us for three months to three years. So that's how extensive the services are. And again, if a person is willing to go through the process, we're going to walk through it with them to the end.

MAYRA MORENO: So there is help out there. There is hope, light at the end of the tunnel.

AMY SMITH: Just to address one thing that she said-- not what Maisha said, but what the viewer said-- was that you can still report a crime after 24 hours. I mean, you don't have to-- even if it's-- you're still going to be taken seriously. A crime still occurred.

And I think some people-- I mean, we grew up-- we have grown up in our-- a lot of people have grown up watching Law and Order and watching soap operas. And it's not a fast process. I mean, there is-- oh. I'm sorry. [INAUDIBLE] a show on a different network.

But there's not a-- there's not a-- nothing is resolved in-- like there's no investigation and a trial with-- and it doesn't wrap up within an hour. There is a lot of time and energy and investigating that goes into these cases. So it's not a fast process. And I'm sure that both Yesenia and Jennifer can attest to that, that it's not.

But yeah, I mean, even if the crime occurred last week, last month, there's still-- you can still report it to the police. Even if it's not investigated or charges aren't filed, there's a record. And that's really important. Because that record can be used in additional cases. It can be used if there's a different victim. It can be used to build up a case.

And unfortunately, as Yesenia know, and in Ashley's case, it could be build up to help in a homicide case. So there's lots of different things. So it's important to at least make a record. If you don't make a law enforcement record, keep a notebook. Keep a journal of the things that happened, so that can be used. Tell somebody. Talk to your sister. Talk to your friend. Talk to someone that you trust.

Talk to your doctor. Talk to someone that's there, that you can-- there can be a record of yeah, that this is not the first time, and this is not what's going to happen. And more importantly, is both Chau and Maisha and Sydney and I have all stressed over and over again, there are resources out there. Please, please connect with one of your local resources, and get help. Because you can't walk through this alone, and there are so many people out there that are willing to help you.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

MAYRA MORENO: Chau, go ahead.

CHAU NGUYEN: I do want to acknowledge her frustration. In her email to you, Mayra, she's frustrated at the system. She feels like there's roadblocks. So we do acknowledge that the system, as Maisha and Amy said, it's not fast. It's not overnight. And it is frustrating, and we acknowledge that we. We understand that this is not an easy step to take.

MAYRA MORENO: Maisha, go ahead.

MAISHA COLTER: I was just going to say, sometimes, you might have to go to a different ally. So maybe who she's not getting a response from does it mean that there's a no. There might be someone else within the system that will be responsive to what she is trying to make an outcry about. So that's the other thing.

Sometimes, they call a police officer, and they do a response just on that call. We've had to tell clients, go and talk to someone in ABDA family violence unit about the same incident. And they get a response. Because those police officers are trained to recognize the issue of domestic abuse and have the sensitivity necessary to process the cases in ways that sometimes, the [INAUDIBLE] police officer may not.

So that's another thing, is that they might not be reaching the right audience. Doesn't mean that there isn't someone who's receptive and available to actually do something that's going to be responsive and give them where they need to be. So that's the other thing is think about potentially talking to other resources, and finding other allies that might be willing and able to actually make something happen.

MAYRA MORENO: Yeah. So basically, just be persistent, and keep trying to find someone that's going to help you get over this.

MAISHA COLTER: It's frustrating. But persist.

MAYRA MORENO: Yeah, and with that, Jennifer, I know when I interviewed you, you talked about that frustration. And you said, when you called to report it to police, someone basically, on the phone, told you, well, there's really nothing we can do. And that made you extremely upset.

JENNIFER VASQUEZ: Yes, she literally told me, because I was told by one of the officers, here's your incident report. A detective will be contacting you within 24 hours. Well, I mean, almost a week went by, and I had not been contacted. And I finally decided to reach out.

I'm like, I mean, obviously, I wanted something done. And so when I called, she literally told me, do you know how many cases we have on file? And that like literally upset me, like quickly. And I said, well, I mean, when is somebody going to contact me? When you have to come pick up my body?

And I don't know. I mean, she was-- I'm assuming she was a female officer. I think that kind of like maybe hit her hard, a little bit. Because she's like, OK, ma'am. You know, what I'm going to do, I'm going to take your name and number. I'm going to go ahead and turn it into my sergeant. Which the sergeant that did reach out to me and provided me with the details of the detective.

I reached out to the detective. And this was for the first incident. He really didn't do much. I mean, I was literally in the bathroom at work, telling him like the incident, about-- sorry, how the incident happened. And he didn't do anything.

When something was finally done, and I finally heard from him, was during the Second incident. And he's literally stuttering on the phone. And he's like, hey, can you just tell me like what happened? And I'm like, which incident? The first one that you didn't do anything about, or the second one? Because it's the second incident.

So yeah, the way, what she told me over the phone-- I think it was very uncalled for. Like, I'm a victim. I just had something happen a couple of days before that. And for her to tell me, do you know how many cases we have? Like that's not the way to speak to someone that just went through something very severe.

MAYRA MORENO: Yeah, and I guess that goes back to, it takes the community, understanding, knowing the issue, and trying to help others. I know we have a few minutes before we close off. I did want to talk about male victims. I wanted to touch on that.

We do know that there is men that go through this. It's probably not out there as the issues with women. But some men do go through this. Chau, have you guys received any calls from men that are dealing with domestic violence situations?

CHAU NGUYEN: We receive many calls from men. We house survivors through our safe harbor hotel program. People are always surprised when they say oh, you serve men, too. Because of that shame, and men are supposed to be manly and macho, you know, many, many men don't come forward when they're victims of abuse or violence.

We want people to know that you can call regardless of your gender to get help and support.

MAYRA MORENO: Yeah. Maisha, I know, when I interviewed you, you mentioned as well that you guys have helped a lot of men get divorced and whatnot.

MAISHA COLTER: Sure. Absolutely. We help men in the same circumstances that we represent women. Certainly, the rate of seeing our male clients is smaller than the rate of incidence amongst women. We also have same sex clients, where domestic abuse is occurring in same sex households. We're doing those divorces, those protective orders as well.

So yeah, it is. The problem is not really unique to any type of identity at all, any type of cultural or ethnic identity. It is everybody and anybody who's in intimate relationships, where this dynamic can exist. And it can, and it can exist anywhere. But yes, men are oftentimes more likely to be ashamed.

Usually, the clients that we see, weapons are used, because it's sort of the disparate physicality between a female perpetrator and a male victim. We see some very physical and violent things. We also tend to see the where not only is the male victim a victim, but so, too, are the children in those households. So those dynamics exist a little bit more uniquely when the female is the perpetrator of the domestic abuse.

We also do battering intervention and prevention groups with female perpetrators, who are being sent to us as a result of being convicted of family violence, assaults, and crimes in the same way as men. So we don't have as many groups that are female, but we certainly have them.

MAYRA MORENO: We have about five minutes or so left before we close off here. So I want to go around the table and gather your final thoughts to anything you want to say. I know we always talk about what it's going to take to help these victims survive, to keep another person alive. So I'm going to start off the way I have you guys on my screen. Yesenia, you're first here in my screen. Your final thoughts and closing, something you want to say to folks out there?

YESENIA GARCIA: For anyone that's going through this, honestly, I-- I received so much information tonight. And I wish it was there for my sister. I wish I knew earlier. Reach out.

I didn't know there was numbers. I didn't know the system, how it worked, or anything like that. I mean, unfortunately for my sister, you know, she didn't get to get help. But I mean if you're going through it, [INAUDIBLE]. And like you mentioned about waiting for-- I'm still waiting for justice to be served for my sister. I mean, it's a process. It's going to happen.

But in the meantime, reach out to other people that are willing to help-- family members, you guys. I mean, there's literally everything else.

MAYRA MORENO: Thanks, Yesenia. Amy, you're next here on my screen.

AMY SMITH: Just know that there's help available, there's help out there, that there's support out there. And it doesn't-- domestic violence doesn't discriminate against anybody. I mean, there are victims in every socioeconomic class, every race, every religion, every creed, every color, every sexual orientation. It's everywhere.

And so just know that there are services that are available. You know, it's your decisions to make what you want to do. You're the best expert on what you need. And just know that if you reach out, that there are services.

And please, please, go back to Chau said about recognize, refer, and-- recognize, respond, and refer, to make sure that we're out there. And believe them, regardless of what they're telling you, and regardless of who they're telling you this is happening to. Believe, believe, believe.

And teach your boys not to be abusive. I mean, we teach girls how to take care of themselves, and how not to walk into strange bars, or what not to wear and what not to do, this stuff. But let's teach boys that-- don't treat women like this, and take care of yourself.

And thank you so much for doing this outside of October. We always do it for October. So thank you for recognizing that domestic violence happens other than during October. And Yesenia and Jennifer, thank you so much for your bravery and your courage, for speaking out tonight.

MAYRA MORENO: [INAUDIBLE]. Sydney, you're next here on my screen.

SYDNEY ZUIKER: That's what I was going to say. Yesenia and Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing with our entire community today. I think it's so valuable. And then I also just wanted to remind everyone that Crime Stoppers has been a safe way to report for 40 years. So of course, if there is an emergency situation, call 911.

But if you don't feel comfortable calling and having your name associated with a report, we are a truly anonymous reporting system. You can call us at 713-222-TIPS. And we will take your call, and we never ask for any identifying information. And we're here to help.

So everyone on this call today, thank you so much for sharing your expertise. And let's get out there and change this community.

MAYRA MORENO: Thank you, Sydney. Maisha, you're next here.

MAISHA COLTER: I just want to agree with everything that has been said before. Let the community know that ABDA is available for the services that we provide. And we want to play our part in trying to end this pandemic. Because again, it is another pandemic that existed before COVID and probably will exist long after COVID has been resolved. Our number is 713-224-9911.

For anybody who's listening, everybody has a part to play in trying to really mitigate domestic abuse. And if you heard anything that will help you to help someone, please make sure you do that. If you are a victim out there, and you feel alone and isolated, know that you are not.

Use what Yesenia and Jennifer have said, in terms of their own personal experience. And make sure that your family is not going to be appearing on ABC News with a tragedy. So just do everything you can to stop this as best as you can.

MAYRA MORENO: Thank you. Chau?

CHAU NGUYEN: Thank you so much. And Yesenia and Jennifer, your voice has power. And you will inspire others. And thank you for being that voice for survivors.

Just no, we're bracing for the holidays. We're looking at domestic violence, murders. We're looking at a rise in violence. Please know, as Maisha, Amy, Sydney have said, help is available. Go to the website. We have a chat option now, hawc.org, or our hotline, 24/7, 365-- 713-528-2121.

MAYRA MORENO: Thank you. Jennifer?

JENNIFER VASQUEZ: First of all, Yesenia, I'm sorry about what happened to your sister. That story really touched me, to be honest with you. So I'm sorry.

Also, since ABDA and the Houston Area Women's Center is present, I really want to say thank you, thank you. Because they've there is help, and like I'm here to tell you, the help is there. And ABDA really helped me. And Houston Women's Area Center, my case manager, has been beyond exceptional.

Another thing, like Miss Amy said, teach your boys. Families, please teach your boys. Teach your men. Families, do not support this. Because I had that problem, where the family enabled. Thank you.

MAYRA MORENO: Well, thank you so much, all of you, for joining me in this conversation that I think needs to continue. Like you guys said, this is a pandemic before the pandemic. And we're still going to have this issue, even after, unfortunately. So hopefully, people see this and realize it's a problem. We need to get out in the community.

We need to do what we can, whether it's through our judges, whether it's helping a friend or family member, we need to figure out a way to put you ladies out of work. That's the ultimate goal, to find a solution for domestic violence.

So thank you once again, and hope you guys have a lovely night.