“Stalking isn’t just what you see on television, where some fan is obsessed with a celebrity,” said Laura Patzner, director of the Family Crisis Center. “ It’s a very prevalent kind of crime.”
In fact, of the cases seen by Patzner and her associates involving both domestic and sexual violence, stalking is involved 60 to 70 percent of the time.
January is National Stalking Awareness month. Every year since 2002, when information about stalking began to be recorded by the state, there has been a steady increase in the number of incidents reported. In Barton County, reports are on the rise also, according to Amy Mellor, Barton County Assistant District Attorney.
“The statistics only reflect the number that are actually reported,” Mellor said. “We believe that may be only 15 to 25 percent of the incidents that occur.”
Linking violence with stalking
Stalking and abuse are closely linked, Patzner said. In fact when repeated domestic abuse occurs, 60 to 70 percent of the time, stalking is a factor, she said. Usually, it takes eight cases of abuse before a victim is ready and in a position to break from the relationship.
“At the time of separation or a break in behavior, you see the stalking behavior escalate.,” Patzner said.
Stalking is more than just mental games, Patzner said. It’s a form of terrorism.
“I know that sounds very harsh, but what you’re doing is literally making someone second guess every move they make.
“It can start very subtly, like you begin to see the car driving around the block. Then you begin feeling very paranoid about your own surroundings. Eventually, you have no safe space. You’re walking around literally terrified of the next move you make. It’s not just mental games. It truly is a traumatic experience.”
In fact, the biggest misconception about stalking is that it isn’t a big concern. Jokes are made, and people laugh about it, but to Patzner and her associates who have worked with victims stalking, its no laughing matter.
“When you take away someone’s own sense of safety within themselves, that’s the last place, and now what do you do,” she said. “The trauma is very difficult to overcome. We work with folks for years, just trying to find their own safety again, to feel like they can do other things.”
Some clients still won’t stay alone in their own homes three or four years after they seek help, she said. It takes away a sense of safety, and to get that back is very difficult.
Technology has opened a whole new world for stalkers. Part of the stalker’s arsenal includes GPS trackers placed on vehicles, cell-phone tracking technology, “keystroke” programs that let a stalker know who you communicate with through email or chat rooms, as well as your passwords and user names, malware, spyware, sensor programs for webcams, just to name a few.
“Stalkers can even use software to make it appear they are someone else when they call you,” Patzner said.
The Tribune did a Google search, asking, “How to get around caller id”. The company SpoofCard came up. The company offers several services, including the ability to disguise your phone number disguise your voice, add background noises and even record the conversation unbeknownst to the person you are calling.
“You look down at your phone and you see, say, your mom’s number pop up on it and you answer it, and its the stalker,” she said. “It can also be used in reverse, so if the victim calls back that number, it will go back to the stalker, and if there is any kind of mutual restraint issue, they can hold the victim accountable for violating it. It’s very sick.”
The most important first call to make if you know or suspect you are being stalked is 911, Mellor said. Stalking is a crime. A report by law enforcement is the first step in getting a Protection From Stalking order, which will make the difference between the vague accusations of a person driving past your house, which is not a crime, and a clear violation of a court order, which is.
However, it’s important to remember that protection orders are tools, and tools only.
“ It’s one of those things --people think its a magic piece of paper that will take care of everything, and then they are disappointed when it doesn’t,” Mellor said. “We obviously can’t file a violation of a protection order unless the victim has actually filed that paperwork, but it’s important not to assume just because you have an order that the stalking will quit.”
A protection order is a court order that orders a stalker or abuser to stay away--not to have any contact with you by phone, by electronic means, in person, indirectly or directly. But, it is not valid until the person is served.
“Lets say a person gets a protection from stalking order against a stalker,” Mellor said. “The judge signs it. It’s filed with the court. Then a copy goes to the sheriff’s office so they can serve the stalker. It’s not valid until the document is actually served to the person filed against. Even though the victim has done her part.”
Patzner agrees that a protection order should only be one tool against stalking.
“Victims need to find someone who understands these orders, understands stalking behavior, and can help them develop a safety plan,” she said. “An order can be part of a safety plan, but there has to be some comprehensive thought put into looking at every facet of your life, so you can create a safe space for yourself.”
Safety plans include determining the processes you use to do things in your life. Sometimes, simply changing a pattern can help solve a stalking problem, or at least put it off for awhile. Patzner recommends working with a safety specialist, a service provided free from the Family Crisis Center.
“I’m going to see safety a little bit differently than someone that is right in the middle of it,” she said.
While stalking does have some stigma attached to it, Patzner recommends letting people, friends, family and co-workers who care about you know what is going on.
“Unfortunately, keeping silent causes more harm than good,” she said. “People who could be aware and help them don’t even know what is going on.”
Also, stalking tends to escalate, and when someone is stalking you, it puts others at risk.
Most importantly, if others know about the stalking, they can better help you corroborate your case to a judge, if it comes to that, Mellor said.
If a victim can tell a judge what happened, and co-worker or friend can also say they witnessed stalking behavior, and a boss can tell how the behavior has affected the workplace, there’s a really good chance of conviction.
Patzner said people need to keep two things in mind. First, no one is responsible for someone else’s actions. If you are being stalked, you didn’t cause it. Second, everyone needs to understand the potential is there for you to be stalked.
“This is not a crime that doesn’t happen in Barton County. It’s a crime that is incredibly prevalent,” she said. “You have to know it can happen to you, and you need to teach your kids how they can be safe.”
She urges people to pay attention to their surroundings, trust their instincts, and teach respect.
Also, keep in mind that a stalker isn’t necessarily someone you know, Mellor said. It could be someone you make eye contact in with in the grocery store who thinks you now have a connection.
Trust your gut, be aware of your surroundings and ask for help are the three top recommendations Patzner makes.
“To sit and do nothing when you already feel so out of control is only going to prolong the feeling. You’re just going to be there longer.”