Imagine sitting in your home by yourself, watching your favorite nightly television show having just returned from a difficult day at work. In the process of cleaning up dinner, you get up to take out the trash. On your way to the Dumpster, you round the corner, and you are confronted by an ex-boyfriend in the darkness.
I wish this was a fabrication. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
January marks the 12th Annual Stalking Awareness Month.
The Department of Justice estimates that 6.6 million people are stalked each year in the United States. That is one in every six women. But, the issue is not limited to women; one in 19 men have also experienced stalking. It also does not ignore age. Last year one in five females and one in 14 males between the ages of 11 and 17 said they were stalked.
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So, what is stalking? Missouri law states it is “when any person (an adult or minor) purposely and repeatedly behaves in a way that serves no legitimate purpose and causes you to reasonably fear that you are in danger of being physically harmed.” This may include unwanted communication or contact, spying similar to the example above, unwanted gifts or other advances.
The impact this has on an individual can be extremely traumatic and disabling. One in eight stalking victims loses time from work due to the fear created by stalking. It has been known to cause anxiety, insomnia, social dysfunction and depression.
And, why not? In 20 percent of stalking cases, the stalkers use weapons to harm or threaten their victims. Two-thirds of the time, stalkers pursue their victims at least on a weekly basis. Most of the time, the stalking is done by former partners who find it easy to approach their victims.
If you or a friend worries about what to look for, some of the traits of stalkers include: jealous behaviors, narcissistic and manipulative personalities, inability to cope with rejection, frequent shifting of blame to someone else.
If any of these signs are witnessed, we recommend communicating that concern as soon as the victim feels uncomfortable. Most of the time, victims are nervous about taking that first step and “hurting the person’s feelings.” If the discomfort continues or escalates, it is important to make a bold statement that cannot be misconstrued by the abuser: Try something along the lines of, “I will no longer tolerate this harassment. If you try to contact me in any shape or form, I will call the police.”
From there, if it continues, it is important to keep a log of all stalking activity, including: dates, times, descriptions and locations of the incident; any potential witnesses; whether or not the police were called; and if the police were called, the badge numbers of the responding officers.
There are also things victims can do to protect themselves. Victims can explore the home and check for holes drilled through walls (these may be filled with removable plugs), trim high bushes or trees, notify neighbors to be alert, plan a possible escape route if necessary. Dog lovers might consider adopting a canine to warn them of trespassers.
If the harassment continues, victims have legal resources available to them. In the Missouri court system, victims can pursue an ex parte order of protection or full order of protection. An ex parte order means a judge has “good cause” to grant protection if he believes there is an immediate danger of abuse to the victim. The ex parte orders may be granted without the abuser’s knowledge or presence in court. This is the primary difference between an ex parte and full order of protection.
Full orders can be issued only after a court hearing where both sides have the opportunity to present their cases. Depending on the presence of domestic violence, full orders of protection can last up to 180 days and can be extended if necessary.
Both orders provide legal protections to the victim and forbid abusers from threatening or stalking the victim, entering into a jointly-owned or leased residence, communicating with, or even seeing children.
Hope House has dealt with thousands of cases similar to the opening story throughout our 32 year history in Kansas City. If you or someone you know has questions regarding stalking behavior, I would refer you to our website www.hopehouse.net where you can find additional stalking resources. You can also contact our 24-hour hotline at 816-461-HOPE (4673). For general information or to get involved or donate call 816-257-4188.
MaryAnne Metheny is CEO of Hope House, a domestic violence shelter serving Lee’s Summit and eastern Jackson County.