January is Stalking Awareness Month

By Ashley M. Casey

The U.S. Department of Justice defines stalking as “a pattern of repeated and unwanted attention, harassment, contact, or any other course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.”

Each year, 3.4 million Americans are victims of stalking. Most of them are between the ages of 18 and 24, and 80 percent of them are female.

While often difficult to prosecute, stalking is a major crime related to domestic violence.

Oswego County Opportunities’ Services to Aid Families (SAF) program is recognizing January as Stalking Awareness Month.

SAF is providing educational events and resources on stalking, domestic violence and how to maintain a healthy relationship — or how to escape from an unhealthy one.

(See the next issue of The Valley News for the list of Stalking Awareness Month events.)

“In terms of stalking, we offer a variety of legal services,” said Sarah Stevens, who works with SAF. “We assist victims in obtaining orders of protection, compensation or updates on a criminal case.”

SAF also provides free professional training sessions for employers who want to teach their staffs about domestic violence.

Stalking behavior takes a variety of forms. A stalker may follow his or her victim near their home or workplace, call or text them repeatedly, or threaten the victim and his or her loved ones and pets.

Stalking behavior can spread online as well, through unwanted emails and social media contact, or by tracking the victim’s whereabouts through “check-in” information on sites such as Foursquare or Twitter.

“We also talk a lot about Internet safety and stalking,” Stevens said. She suggested that if you are being stalked online, “change your phone numbers and your Internet passwords.”

While not all stalkers are violent, some may escalate their harassment to property damage, physical harm or worse. More than three-quarters of women murdered by their intimate partners were stalked beforehand.

According to the National Institute of Justice, only 15 percent of stalkers were prosecuted for their crime. Of that number, only 40 percent were actually convicted of stalking.

Oswego County First Assistant District Attorney Mark Moody said statutes for stalking are more specific than what most people would consider in the broader definition of stalking.

The statute requires a pattern of behavior that is “likely to cause reasonable fear of material harm to someone’s health, safety or property.”

“There are other charges that can be brought,” Moody said. “For example, if your tires are slashed, the (perpetrator) will be charged with criminal mischief. We might not be able to show there was a repeated course of conduct.”

Moody said some victims report only one incident to the police, but never return to report additional incidents which would point to a pattern of stalking.

“If we can’t prosecute this (particular incident) because the evidence isn’t sufficient enough to make an arrest, that doesn’t mean that’s the end of the case,” Moody said. “If you have another incident, go back to the police.”

To aid law enforcement in prosecuting stalkers, victims must document the crimes as best as they can.

“A detailed journal is probably the No. 1 way if they want (the stalker) prosecuted,” Stevens said.

“You document a pattern of behavior, the course of conduct that the statute requires,” Moody said.

Both Moody and Stevens said friends and family are important in helping a victim of stalking stay safe.

“If it’s an abusive relationship that has ended or (you) are trying to end, it’s important to create a safety net around you,” Moody said.

Stevens also offered suggestions for supporting victims of stalking.

“Believe them,” Stevens said. “Don’t ask judgmental questions. Respect their privacy and don’t tell others things the victim has asked you not to tell.”

Friends can help victims develop a safety plan or seek resources as well.

“Call our hotline if (you’re) not sure what to do,” Stevens said. “Being a nonjudgmental listener is the best option.”

SAF provides shelter for those who feel too unsafe to go home, as well as free “911 phones.” Stevens said the cell phones SAF gives out are not activated with cell phone plans, but they can still dial 911 in an emergency.

For more information about OCO’s resources for domestic violence victims, visit oco.org or call the Crisis and Development Services division at 342-7532.

What do I do if I am being stalked?

If you are in immediate danger or feel that your life is being threatened, call 911. Other important numbers: OCO’s 24-hour Abuse & Assault hotline, 342-1600; Fulton City Police Department (non-emergency) 598-2111.

Obtain an order of protection and keep a copy with you.

Keep a dated journal of each stalking incident (e.g., “Dec. 30, 11 p.m.: Stalker showed up uninvited at my home” or “Jan. 2: received flowers from stalker”). Save voicemails, letters or unwanted gifts as evidence. This documentation will help if you choose to press charges against your stalker.

Inform your family, friends, neighbors and employer that you are being stalked and ask them not to share information about you if the stalker approaches them.

Be careful of what you post on social media. Your stalker may try to use information about your location and activities against you.

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