STALKING IN THE CONTEXT OF FAMILY VIOLENCE


STALKING IN THE CONTEXT OF FAMILY VIOLENCE

Veritas-Justice is a Community Interest company, working on the issues of stalking, domestic abuse and family justice. Our unique approach combines legal, therapeutic and academic skills to train and support individuals and organisations alike. We strongly believe that personal experience must inform professional practice so that the needs of the community are coherently and appropriately responded to. We are committed to working towards effective and meaningful partnerships that include professionals, agencies and service-users.
Stalking is a devastating crime, which is very distressing for victims who are often forced to modify their lives. It is a complex crime that affects one in five women and one in ten men during their lifetimes. Women are much more likely than men to be the victims of multiple incidents of abuse generally. This includes family violence, sexual abuse and stalking (Walby, Allen 2004). Research consistently shows that more women than men have been victims of violence and abuse from an intimate partner or former partner, especially in the context of family violence. The discourse of this piece is not gender-neutral and aims to transcend traditional approaches to violence to include emotional and psychological harm, which is the essence of stalking. ‘Men of all ages and in all parts of the world are more violent than women for this reason the language here at least, is mostly gender specific because here at least politically correct would be statistically incorrect’ (De Becker, 1997).

 

Stalking was made a law on 25th November 2012 after a highly successful parliamentary campaign, which was led and informed by the experiences of the survivors and their families who showed extraordinary courage and determination to ensure that future victims get the justice and protection they deserve. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 was then amended by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 (Section 2a and 4a) defining stalking as a pattern of repeated and persistent behaviour that is intrusive and engenders fear. One person becomes fixated or obsessed with another and the attention is unwanted.

 

Stalking behaviour can be seen as unwanted communications from telephone calls to messages or intrusions that include waiting for, spying on, approaching and entering a person’s home. Additionally the stalker may make complaints to legitimate bodies or use the Internet and social media to continue their campaign. Occasionally they will make threats, damage property or use violence but even if there is no threat stalking is still a crime.

 

Anyone can be a stalker. They come from all backgrounds and have a variety of motivations. They do not constitute one type. What is true of stalkers is that they will invest a significant amount of time and effort to their campaigns, which could last for years.The new wave of social media communications can facilitate these devastating campaigns with easy access to social media where stalkers may use different identities, profiles and groups to keep their victims under surveillance. When viewed in isolation these actions may seem unremarkable but the persistence and repetition of contact attempts gives these situations a more sinister meaning. Stalkers will often involve the victims’ wider network to upset the victim and obtain information of their day-to-day activities. Stalkers frequently present as credible and plausible, thereby manipulating many people coming into contact with them.

 

Equally anyone is at risk of stalking!! The majority of stalkers are known to their victims either as ex-partners or acquaintances but some people are stalked by complete strangers. Many victims will experience on average of 100 incidents before they recognise it and report it as stalking. Stalking is life changing and frequently devastating to victims psychological, physical and social functioning regardless of whether or not they have been physically assaulted.

 

Stalking rarely takes place at a distance and research shows that those stalkers who know or visit the victims’ home, workplace or other places frequented by the victim are more likely to attack them. This is particularly significant in the context of family violence as one in two of domestic stalkers will act upon a threat of seriously harming their victims. The considerable amount of information and knowledge the stalker has of the victim’s routine is a significant and strong predictor in cases of serious violence (National Stalking Helpline 2012).

 

A recent report from the National Stalking Advocacy service reported that 70% of victims had suffered from the affects of psychological abuse from the perpetrator. Stalking has a huge emotional impact on the victim showing that 32.7% of those experiencing stalking indicate symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (according to a recent clinical questionnaire), which in turn affects the children in the family thereby increasing the cost to the National Health Service and Child Protection Agencies. “The early stages of separation (especially the first three months) are particularly dangerous. It is important to note that a child contact dispute can indicate risk of homicide to both the partner and children” (Richards, Letchford and Stratton 2008).

 

Our justice system is a complex one and victims have little hope of having their voice heard or the possibility of having their interests represented appropriately whilst navigating their way through the system. The recent changes to the Legal Aid sentencing and punishment of Offenders 2012 is proving highly controversial and damaging to victims who repeatedly report that police do not take their complaints seriously, that they are often disbelieved and unsupported, that prosecutions are rarely taken forward and that conviction rates and sentencing are more often than not very poor (Victims Survey 2014).

 

The burden continues to be on the victim to drive the process and challenge the stalkers behaviour, potentially facing serious consequences when they dare to report to the police. In many cases they are subsequently also fighting the system. Particularly in cases of ex-intimate partners, victims suffer from secondary victimisation at the hands of the system as well as the emotional and psychological impact of their experiences. There are significant amounts of evidence to suggest that abuse and stalking continues through vexatious actions being brought by perpetrators before the family and civil courts.

 

It has therefore become apparent that the Criminal and Civil Justice Systems are significantly disjointed, especially when assessing, responding to and addressing the risk of violence against women and their children. Poor multi-agency responses place the most vulnerable groups in our community at serious risk of suffering the devastating effects of emotional, psychological, financial and physical harm.

 

Developments in family law and practice have consistently ignored the concerns and challenges faced by women who have been victims of Domestic Abuse and Stalking, when trying to care for their children by providing abusive men a platform to continue and sustain violence and abuse campaigns against mothers through the “manipulation of the law (stalking by proxy)” (Radford, Hester, Humphries, Woodfield, 1997.).

 

The current campaign to criminalise domestic violence as part of our legal framework has made it evident that the law needs to be strengthened in order to address the complex behaviours women and children suffer at the hand of their stalkers. For example, non-physical abuse and the exercise of power and coercive control, which is an integral part of on going abuse and Stalking campaigns, is currently disregarded and tacitly condoned.

 

Failing to recognise common patterns of stalking means that the criminal and civil justice systems cannot appropriately intervene before the abuse has escalated, thereby failing women and children and placing them at risk. Two women on average a week are murdered each week by a former or current partner.

 

A Study of 200 women found that just 23% of women reported having experienced stalking from an ex-intimate partner since the age of sixteen. In the same study 60% of them reported having left the perpetrator because they feared that they or their children would be killed. In addition to this 76% of separated women suffered post-separation stalking (Women’s Aid, 2013).

 

Considering the above The Enactment of the Children and Family Act 2014 will continue to ignore the concerns and challenges faced by women that have been victims of Domestic Abuse and Stalking, when trying to care for their children by providing abusive men a platform to continue and sustain their stalking and abuse campaigns against mothers through the “manipulation of the law (abuse by proxy)” (Radford, Hester, Humphries, Woodfield, 1997).

 

Her Majesty Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) report showed that 46% of respondents reported that a violent parent had used contact proceedings to stalk his partner (Saunders with Barron 2003). Mothers and children are consistently failed by a Family Justice System that refuses to take into account the decisions made by the Criminal Justice System together with agencies’ protection plans by forcing women to trade their own safety in favour of the more rhetorical question of “what is in the best interest of the children?” There is an expectation on women to downplay the violence, sexual violence and stalking they experience so that father and child relationships can be established.

 

The current and pervasive discourses of minimisation of victims’ experiences, mother blaming and lad culture so often displayed in media reports, tabloids and news ignores the significance of the personal experiences of women, thereby justifying the unacceptable. The important contribution of the personal narratives as a valid form of knowledge of those being victimised, disbelieved and ignored should be used as the basis to improve provision of services, policy and practice.

 

One could thus argue that patriarchal structures can be identified in the way legal, political and economic structures play a role in family dynamics and justice and the general position of women as members of society.

 

Two years on from the introduction of the law only a small amount of agencies and professionals have been trained on how to use the law and how to support victims. For example only 17% of all police officers across England and Wales have been given stalking specific training. Training is vital and the visible lack of investment in prosecutors, court officials, legal professionals and first line response workers training, to date, has resulted in many victims being let down and put at further risk. It is evident by the current low conviction rates, which show, that despite around 600 arrests for offences related to stalking, only 47 convictions were secured and just nine of those convicted were given custodial sentences. Training must become a day-to-day practice to ensure that stalkers are placed at the centre of the investigation, put before the courts and are given appropriate sentencing and treatment whilst a more robust understanding of the complexities of stalking is required by communities as a whole.

 

In conclusion, it is high time that stalking is no longer trivialized and misunderstood and the voices of all of those victimised by it are equally valued, respected as the basis for improving practices and outcomes for the future generations.

 

Article Author: Sam Taylor and Claudia Miles on behalf of Veritas-Justice

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