Friday, January 27, 2012

‘It was absolutely terrifying’

The Advocates offer help to stop stalking


By JENNIFER TUOHY
Express Staff Writer

Illustration by Kristen Kaiser

The final straw for "Sarah" was when "Phil" barged into her workplace shouting and screaming, scaring her co-workers and clients.

"I lost my job because of him," she said. "In fact, I lost four jobs over it all. They said, 'You can't be doing your type of work with this crazy guy after you.'"

With her career in ruins, her reputation destroyed and her family struggling to get by ("we had to rely on food boxes from local charities until I could find another job"), Sarah realized she needed to get help.

Sadly, Sarah's story is an all too common one. What started out as a brief relationship quickly descended into an ordeal from which she is only now beginning to recover.

"It was absolutely terrifying," she said.

Stalking, as defined by the National Center for Victims of Crime, is a series of actions directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. Stalking is serious, often violent, and can escalate over time.

Since 2004, January has been deemed National Stalking Awareness Month, a time when Jennifer Landis, program manager of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence, intensifies her year-round efforts to help local communities "understand what stalking means and the impact it has on victims."

Like many victims, at first Sarah didn't realize what was happening to her.

"It escalated. At first I tried to ignore it. I thought it would just go away," she said. "But when I showed my friends some of the text messages Phil was sending me, they told me I needed to do something about it."

Then Phil threatened Sarah's friends, and she realized this was a situation she needed to take seriously.

"In my heart, I don't think he would act physically on me. I think he was just angry and just trying to hurt me," she said.

But she was worried enough to contact the local police.

"They were really kind and helpful, but they said as long as he wasn't physically hurting me they couldn't put him behind bars," Sarah said.

However, they helped as best they could, even driving by her house to check on her. The best thing that came out of her call to the police, however, was a referral to The Advocates.

Based in Hailey, The Advocates for Survivors of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault is a nonprofit organization offering education, shelter and support services. Stalking is a problem for about 14 percent of the people who use its services. On its website, www.theadvocatesorg.org, the organization identifies some of the tactics stalkers use, such as following their victim or showing up at various places where he/she is, sending unsolicited or unwanted gifts, vandalizing property, using technology to monitor the location and communications of their target, spreading rumors about them, threatening them and/or their family and friends, and reporting them to the authorities for crimes they didn't commit.

Sarah experienced the majority of these tactics, but until she spoke with The Advocates she hadn't understood exactly what was happening to her.

"It's a serious matter. I didn't realize how serious it was until they told me," she said. "They supplied me with a lot of information, including a stalking awareness kit that defined what stalking was and explained that I needed to document everything, so as to have some clout when you go to court."

Despite the pop culture stereotypes of female stalkers perpetrated by movies such as "Fatal Attraction" and "Single White Female," the majority of stalkers are male.

"Women are more than three times as likely to be victims, with a majority of women's stalkers being men. Even in the case of male victims, half of all male victims of stalking are stalked by other males," Landis said.

While stalking is a crime in all 50 states, resulting in 3.4 million victims a year, it can be difficult to prove until it has escalated into a more obvious criminal act.

"Many stalking behaviors in and of themselves are not criminal acts. It's not until the entire course of conduct is put together that the crime of stalking becomes apparent," Landis said. "For victims, it's the fear of not knowing what's going to happen next."

Landis just completed a series of webinars, run as part of National Stalking Awareness Month in conjunction with The Advocates in Hailey.

"The webinars were based on the national theme for the month of 'Stalking: Know it. Name it. Stop it.' They were designed for those assisting victims and community allies to recognize the prevalence and impact of stalking on victims and discuss ways to hold offenders accountable and increase victim safety," Landis said.

"Communities that understand stalking can support victims and combat the crime," said Trish Tobias, The Advocates' community education coordinator. "If more people learn to recognize stalking we have a better chance to protect victims and prevent tragedies."

"I would read about this stuff in People magazine, but I never thought it would happen to me," Sarah said. "The Advocates have been wonderful. They really helped me and I feel like I'm able to put this behind me now. But there are a lot of people who don't say anything, who feel they are safer not saying anything. But it's important to tell people what's happening.

"'Seek help. Document everything. Take it seriously.' I think that was the best advice I received. Because if you don't have any proof, it's just your word against his."

Jennifer Tuohy: jtuohy@mtexpress.com

What to do if you are the victim of a stalker

If you feel you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.

Trust your instincts. If you sense you are in danger, you probably are.

Tell the stalker "no" only once. Repeatedly saying "no" reinforces the stalking by keeping the stalker engaged. Do not confront or try to bargain with a stalker.

Get an answering machine and leave it on your old phone line. Get another unlisted number for your family and friends. Have a friend monitor the answering machine if it is difficult for you. If you close off an avenue to a stalker they will find another which may be worse.

Develop a safety plan. Safety plans can includes such things as changing your routes to work, arranging for others to accompany you in public, temporarily staying with friends, planning what you can say if you run into the stalker, keeping an emergency phone nearby.

Try to secure your accounts so your stalker cannot access information about you. Change your passwords frequently. Contact the utility companies and set up a password for your account. Block your address at Department of Motor Vehicles. Check with the Secretary of State's office to see if you are eligible for a confidential address.

Document everything even if you don't go to the police. Photograph injuries and damages. Ask witnesses to write down what they saw. Keep a log of dates, times, places, and witnesses.

Tell others that you are being stalked so that neighbors and co-workers will be alerted not to divulge information and will inform you when he/she is around.

Contact The Advocates' 24 Hour Hotline 208-788-6070 / 888-676-0066

Information courtesy www.theadvocatesorg.org.




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