Organization looks to chage how society looks at stalking

January marks National Stalking Awareness Month.

The county’s comprehensive victims’ agency is looking to spread the word to help increase awareness of stalking and decrease some of the common misconceptions.

January marks the 16th National Stalking Awareness Month, and Your Safe Haven has launched a campaign to mark the occasion in hopes that awareness will increase the number of reported cases.

“When people think of stalking, they often think of stalking celebrities or something like that, and really that’s not the case,” Your Safe Haven staff sttorney Jill Swiontek said. “Most people who are stalked, they know who that person is. Stalking is a form of domestic violence. A lot of times you’ll see that with intimate partners.”

Stalkingawareness.org defines stalking as a pattern of behavior directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear. The website adds that a variety of behaviors can be considered stalking, including but not limited to: unwanted contact, including phone calls, texts and contact via social media; unwanted gifts; showing up or approaching an individual or their family or friends; monitoring, surveillance, property damage and threats.

Stalking impacts an estimated 6 million to 7.5 million people per year in the United States, according to Stalkingawareness.org. Nearly one in six women and one in 17 men have experience stalking at some point in their lifetime.

Swiontek said that stalking in Bedford County looks “under-reported, under-investigated and (under)-prosecuted.”

She said in the past year there were 13 stalking victims. Eleven were female, and none of the cases were prosecuted. She added that many of the domestic violence cases that they see include stalking, but the reporting system that the organization uses allows them to only select one indicator when identifying the victim.

According to Swiontek, in cases where stalking has been defined, a perpetrator has gone past the victim’s house, gone through the victim’s belongings, didn’t let the victim sleep, followed her when she was out, locked her out of the residence, threatened her and went downstairs and cocked a gun.

Swiontek said that statistics show that most individuals who are stalked are done so by someone that they know, which amounts to 66% of female victims and 41% of male victims.

She said that this also means that 76% of intimate partner homicide victims had been stalked by their intimate partner, 86% of abuse victims had also been stalked in the 12 months before they had been killed, and 54% of victims reported stalking in the 12 months before they were killed.

According to Swiontek, over 360 agencies (not including the Pennsylvania State Police) in 49 counties use what is known as a lethality assessment, which began in Maryland. She explained that law enforcement officers ask a victim questions when responding to a domestic violence situation, and based on the answers indicate whether the individual is in a potentially lethal situation. The law enforcement agency can then direct the victim to proper help.

Swiontek added that individuals who stalk are also doing so through technology. She said that some of this is on mobile devices and can include spying and eavesdropping, monitoring calls and voicemails, using it as a recording device and tracking the victim’s location.

The internet can also be used to stalk victims, Swiontek said. She stated that perpetrators can use the internet to post information or spread rumors about the victim on social media sites, making sure that everyone knows what’s going on in that victim’s life.

GPS-enabled devices are also being used to track victims. Swiontek said this is not just phones or vehicle navigation systems.

“Something for your pet or your child or your elderly parent to make sure that you know where they are, this is being used to track victims as well,” she said.

The attorney warned that shutting down devices if you believe they are being tracked may not be the best option.

“It’s not always the best idea if you think your’re being stalked to shut off the phone and do nothing, because now the abuser may know that you’re onto what they’re doing,” she said, adding that those who believe they are victims should visit Your Safe Haven to see what their options may be.

Those at Your Safe Haven say there are several options for those that are being stalked.

Protection from abuse orders can be available if an intimate partner or familial relationship exists and one of the forms of abuse under the act is committed.

Swiontek said that a protection from intimidation order can be utilized in cases where the victim is younger than 18 and the accused is over 18, but not a family member or an intimate partner where the protection from abuse act would not apply.

If anyone knows someone who is a victim of stalking, Your Safe Haven encourages a call to their office at 623-7664 or visit the website at yoursafehaven.org.

Contact Katie Smolen at 623-1151 ext. 110 or ksmolen@bedfordgazette.com.

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