Don't become a victim of stalking

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By The Staff

January is National Stalking Awareness Month, a time to focus on a crime that affects 3.4 million victims a year. This year's theme is "Stalking: Know It. Name It. Stop It." The designation challenges the nation to fight this dangerous crime by learning more about it.

Stalking is a crime in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, yet many victims and criminal-justice professionals underestimate its seriousness and impact. In one of five cases, stalkers use weapons to harm or threaten victims, and stalking is one of the significant risk factors for femicide (homicide of women) in abusive relationships.

Stalking is difficult to recognize, investigate and prosecute. Unlike other crimes, stalking is not a single, easily identifiable crime but a series of acts, a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause that person fear. Stalking is serious, often violent, and can escalate over time. A stalker can be someone you know well or not at all. Most have dated or been involved with the people they stalk.

Some things stalkers do:

• Follow you and show up wherever you are.

• Repeatedly call you, including hang-ups.

• Damage your home, car, or other property.

• Send unwanted gifts, letters, cards, or e-mails.

• Monitor your phone calls or computer use.

• Use technology, like hidden cameras or global positioning systems, to track where you go.

• Drive by or hang out at your home, school or work.

• Threaten to hurt you, your family, friends or pets.

• Find out about you by using public records or online search services, hiring investigators, going through your garbage or contacting friends, family, neighbors or co-workers.

• Other actions that control, track, or frighten you.

Stalkers fit no standard psychological profile, and many stalkers follow their victims from one jurisdiction to another, making it difficult for authorities to investigate and prosecute their crimes.

About one in 12 women and one in 45 men are stalked in their lifetimes.

You are not to blame for a stalker's behavior. Stalking is unpredictable and dangerous. No two stalking situations are alike. There are no guarantees that what works for one person will work for another, yet you can take steps to increase your safety.

A few things you can do to protect yourself:

• If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

• Trust your instincts. Don't downplay the danger. If you feel you are unsafe, you probably are.

• Take threats seriously. Danger generally is higher when the stalker talks about suicide or murder, or when a victim tries to leave or end the relationship.

• Contact a crisis hotline, victim services agency, or a domestic violence or rape crisis program. They can help you devise a safety plan, give you information about local laws, refer you to other services and weigh options such as seeking a protection order.

• Develop a safety plan, including things like changing your routine, arranging a place to stay, and having a friend or relative go places with you. Also, decide in advance what to do if the stalker shows up at your home, work, school, or somewhere else. Tell people how they can help you.

• Don't communicate with the stalker or respond to attempts to contact you.

• Keep evidence of the stalking. When the stalker follows you or contacts you, write down the time, date, and place. Keep e-mails, phone messages, letters or notes. Photograph anything of yours the stalker damages and any injuries the stalker causes. Ask witnesses to write down what they saw.

• Contact the police. Every state has stalking laws. The stalker may also have broken other laws by doing things like assaulting you or stealing or destroying your property.

• Consider getting a court order that tells the stalker to stay away from you.

• Tell family, friends, roommates and co-workers about the stalking and seek their support. Tell security staff at your job or school. Ask them to help watch out for your safety.

There are service providers in Perry County that work everyday to help ensure the safety of victims. These service providers include all Perry County law enforcement officers who respond to 911 emergency domestic calls; the Perry County prosecutor, who files criminal cases against the stalker; victim advocates in the prosecutor's office and Crisis Connection, who provide victims with counseling, shelter, safety plans and emergency assistance; and the countless volunteers who answer the hotlines 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The Perry County prosecutor encourages you to seek assistance if you or someone you know is in danger. For 24-hour emergency assistance, call (800) 245-4580.