Every year, millions of people throughout the U.S. are victims of intimate partner violence, including stalking.
Stalking, or engaging in repeated unwanted contact that causes distress, can especially be a problem when couples become estranged and one party is seeking a divorce. Anger, jealousy and feeling a loss of control can propel some former partners into patterns of unhealthy, vengeful and dangerous behaviors. Mental and physical abuse may also be reasons for seeking divorce.
Based on current statistics, approximately 1 in 7 women and 1 in 18 men will be stalked by an intimate partner to the point of fearing they or someone they know could be hurt or killed, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That is a sobering and scary reality.
January has been established as Stalking Awareness Month by the National Center for Victims of Crime to help draw attention to this serious problem. Stalking, which can take the form of either physical stalking, cyberstalking, or emotional stalking, can have the following long-term impacts on victims:
- Interference with daily activities, such as work or school
- Harmful impacts on personal and professional relationships
Fortunately, some actions can be taken to protect yourself from being stalked by an ex, such as obtaining an order of protection from a court. An experienced attorney, such as the lawyers at Bikel, Rosenthal & Schanfield LLP, can best help you navigate the process and address all of your concerns. But here is a general overview of how it works, and what else you can do to keep yourself safe.
What is an order of protection: An order of protection, which is typically issued by a family court, will specifically prohibit certain individuals from engaging in specific actions, such as visiting a former partner’s home or workplace, interacting with their children and family or contacting them by phone or over the internet. Disobeying an order of protection is contempt, which is illegal.
Not the same as a restraining order: People often think of “orders of protection” and “restraining orders” as synonymous, but there are important differences. Most importantly, while violating either order can be considered contempt, and may be punished, violating an order of protection may be treated immediately as criminal contempt. The perpetrator can be arrested, and if convicted, they can be sentenced to jail or prison time. In general, you may find there are good reasons to seek either a restraining order or an order of contempt if you are facing a difficult and contentious divorce. An attorney can help you decide which is best and how to proceed.
Who can obtain an order of protection: Specifics can vary from state to state, but in New York, family court can offer protective orders to individuals facing risk of stalking and domestic violence, including current and former spouses, a person with whom you have had a child, a family relative or someone with whom you had an intimate (not necessarily sexual) relationship in the past.
Length of time in effect: Courts may issue a temporary or emergency order of protection for short-term situations or during a divorce proceeding. If the situation continues, a permanent order of protection can be issued, which lasts two years. If there are serious or aggravating circumstances, such as using a weapon or violating a pre-existing order, a five-year order of protection can be granted.
In addition to seeking an order of protection, here are some other tips for staying safe and protecting yourself from stalking.
Get support from friends and family: It can be scary and overwhelming to deal with stalking on your own. Reach out to friends and family for support and to let them know what is going on. They may be able to provide emotional support as well as serve as extra “eyes” and “ears” to help you avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Document the stalking: Keep a record of every instance of stalking, including the date, time, and location of each incident. Also, save any emails, texts, or other communication from the perpetrator. Later on, if you decide to report the activity to the police or seek an order of protection or restraining order from a court, this documentation will be helpful in establishing your case.
Change your routines and habits: Nobody wants to have to alter their daily routine because of a stalker, but if you are seriously concerned about your safety, it is a measure worth considering. A stalker, especially one who was a previous intimate partner, may be aware of your habits and routines and use them to try to interact with you. Consider taking a different route to work or school, and be extra cautious about who you share your schedule with or your personal information with.
Be cautious about using social media: It is normal in the social media age to share “updates” about our lives in real-time on social media, for instance, photos of Instagram if you are on vacation, or comments on Twitter or Facebook about some ongoing activity or event you may be involved in. But when you are dealing with a stalker, it’s wise to take more care in what you post and when. Consider “going private” and sharing posts only with a select group of trusted friends and contacts. Or, if you can’t help posting publicly, avoid disclosing your real-time location or other details that may help a stalker find you. Also, be aware that a stalker may use anonymous accounts to try to harass you on social media.
Report the stalking to the police: You should not have to live your life under constant threat of violence or danger from a stalker. If you feel that your safety or the safety of a loved one is at risk, do not hesitate to contact the police and file a report. Any documentation or other evidence you have gathered about the stalking incidents may be helpful in compiling a report, and allowing authorities to take action against the stalker. Stalking is considered a serious crime. There are criminal laws against stalking at the federal level and in all U.S. states and territories.