New Haven resident Cheryl D’Argento was not allowed to make phone calls or invite guests to her home for 11 years before she found the courage to leave her abusive relationship.

D’Argento and her ten-year-old son are two of over 50,000 survivors of short- to long-term domestic violence in the city.

“The answer to why I didn’t leave is easy,” D’Argento said. “You’re hooked. You’re reeled in because you hope it will get better.”

D’Argento was one of two survivors who shared their stories at City Hall’s kickoff of New Haven’s seventh annual domestic violence awareness month yesterday. At the event, several city and community leaders proposed strategies to address the issue. Local artist Elaine Peters also presented an interpretive performance of one woman’s struggle with domestic abuse.

Paola Serrecchia, chair of the CT Domestic Violence Collaborative and a member of the Greater New Haven Domestic Violence Task Force, said the city’s goals for this year are to revamp the restraining order application process so survivors of abuse can obtain orders from both marshals and police officers. She said the city also hopes to work with Senator Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 to advocate for a federal law restricting abusers with restraining orders from purchasing guns.

Mayor Toni Harp dubbed domestic violence a “community epidemic” at the kickoff, saying that one-third of all new arrests in New Haven are related to the issue.

“We have really got to do something about this as a town,” Harp said. “Domestic violence spurs crime in the community.”

Evan Stark, a professor of public administration at Rutgers University who was at the event, agreed with Harp that domestic violence is an urgent issue in the city and the state. In 1977, Stark founded the New Haven Project for Battered Women to provide support for domestically abused women and children.

Stark added that the city’s Board of Aldermen should, as a first step, work to create safe spaces for abuse survivors in New Haven’s schools and churches.

“What I was struck by was that there is no shelter for battered women in New Haven,” Stark said. “Connecticut was once a pioneer in [domestic violence] services, and today we are behind most other states and most of the world.”

While New Haven’s Umbrella Center offers housing to survivors of domestic violence, there are no organizations in the city that provide emergency shelter to battered women and children.

Uneisha Ecton, who shared her story of abuse at the event, agreed that though there is support in New Haven for survivors, the resources are not enough.

“I was told that the courts would stop caring if I didn’t get myself out,” she said. “But this man was climbing through my windows.”

Stark said that Ecton’s story is all too common because Connecticut laws treat domestic violence as only one step above a traffic offense. In fact, perpetrators of domestic violence rarely face jail time.

Ecton and D’Argento agreed that the trauma of abuse lingered after they left their relationships. D’Argento’s son, for instance, is currently undergoing counseling at New Haven’s Clifford Beers Clinic for children.

“The kicker of the whole thing is you cannot get over thinking, ‘I did this to my child because I didn’t leave,’” said D’Argento.

Ecton was arrested for crashing her car into a residence when trying to escape her abuser. Now, she cannot pay back $70,000 of student debt because her criminal record prevents her from getting a job, she said.

Prior to its arrival to New Haven seven years ago, the October kickoff of domestic violence awareness month took place in Hartford for two years.