Linda, the creator of the Fried Social Worker Blog wrote to me asking: “Do you have any suggestions for social workers who are concerned about clients stalking them? A few days ago a colleague was telling me of her experience of being stalked by an ex-client. I started searching the web for good resources and most of the stuff out there is for victims of domestic violence, not the practitioners who work with them. It occurs to me that in the increased dialogue about social worker safety these days, stalking is an issue that’s not being addressed.”
I know that this is a major issue for a lot of people. It will be no surprise to social workers that according to the Stalking Resource Center, more than one million women and 400,000 men are stalked annually in the US. The average length of stalking is 1.3 years, although most situations last about a month.
First of all, treat all stalking as a serious and legitimate threat. Involve the police and your employer right away so that they can support you. Get the police to attach a premise history to your home and work address. Modern CAD (Computer Assisted Dispatch) systems automatically display hazards and histories of addresses to call takers and dispatchers: this means that if you call in and can’t say anything, the CAD will automatically list the history attached to your address. This allows the call taker and the dispatcher to instantly see that it is you calling and that you’re having a problem with a stalker, listing his/her particulars and the address history. This will help them to respond swiftly and appropriately even if you are unable to tell them what is happening.
Ensure your home phone number is unlisted with your local phone provider. Program 911 on your cell phone to speed up emergency response. Remember when calling 911 to always give your address first. That way, if the police dispatcher knows nothing else, at least they will know where to send their police units. Unlike land lines, cellular phone calls do not reveal your exact location to the police dispatcher. All that the call taker and dispatcher sees on their screen is a display showing the location of the repeater tower the signal is coming in to and the azimuth that it is coming from. In the US, cellular phone providers are now including a GPS locator in cell phones that helps the police narrow down your location, even if it doesn’t provide your exact location. If you are using VOIP as a phone provider, be aware that the address that is displayed to the police dispatch is always your home phone location. If you are using VOIP to call 911 from anywhere else you need to either temporarily reprogram the location or make sure that you tell the 911 operator where you really are. Otherwise the police will be responding to your home address even if that isn’t where you actually are.
When you find yourself plunged into a crisis situation, you will fall back on whatever you have planned and/or rehearsed. If you don’t plan for contingencies, then when things suddenly get ugly you may fall into a basic “deer in the headlights” response that isn’t a safe or effective response to the situation. Developing safety and escape plans will help you to overcome this. Develop and implement a safety plan which outlines to your friends and employer what you plan to do if you have to leave your home in an emergency. Plan escape routes from your home and office and rehearse them. Select safe destinations that you can use in emergency situations and have more than one. Advise your friends and employer where these safe havens are located. This will help you stay in control during an escape.
Put together a “ready bag” at home packed with all of your important documents (driver’s license and registration, birth certificates, social security/SIN cards, insurance papers, extra cash, address book, prescription medications, spare clothing, cell phone, etc). Keep it hidden in a place where you can access it quickly. You could also leave extra money, spare keys and copies of important documents at your safe havens with people that you trust.
Give your co-workers, friends and family a “code word” that you can use to let them know that you need immediate assistance. Sometimes it is difficult to talk openly on the phone in front of the abuser and you’ll want a way to tell them you’re in trouble without tipping off the stalker who is listening. A code that my social worker and nursing partners used in the field to indicate to me and one another that we had spotted a hazard and were preparing to escape/respond was to start referring to one another by our surnames instead of our given names as we usually did. This isn’t obvious to listening suspects and could be a useful clue to your office worker, friend or family member on the other end of the phone that you need the police immediately.
When you leave the office, make sure that they know where you are going and when you expect to return. Tell them your estimated time of arrival and expected route. Your office should have a display board on which this information can be recorded so that your movements can be monitored and a person responsible for monitoring it. That way if you do not show up or return on time, someone can start checking up on you. Make sure that your vehicle doors are locked at all times. Always check in and around your vehicle before entering it. Always check around the parking area before committing to a parking space. Avoid walking alone, especially at night or in isolated areas. Get police back up to cover you at problem locations. This will help to discourage possible threats lurking in the area when you arrive. It will also allow them to cover your departure, making sure that no one attempts to follow you. They can also escort you to and from the place that you are visiting and escort your vehicle if necessary.
If you become aware of someone following you, immediately call for police assistance with your cellular phone. Pass on the vehicle license number, description, number of persons visible in the suspect vehicle and your location and direction of travel. Stay on well lighted and well traveled roadways and avoid stopping if you can. Head for a place such as a police station or public building where security personnel can see you and assist you (these locations should be part of your escape route planning). Flash your headlights and honk your horn to attract attention if necessary.
Maintain a journal detailing all incidents of stalking. Include dates, times, locations and a complete description of the stalker. Detail all that was said and the actions that you took. List all witnesses. You should get an answering machine at home that will not only allow you to screen incoming calls (and often identify the caller) but will also record threats made over the phone. Use the telephone provider’s ID function (such as *57) to identify the phone number that the stalker is calling from and note this down. Get your local phone provider to help you track the origin of unsolicited calls: Usually they can set up a “trap line” to capture this information. This will all be useful evidence for the police in court.
Get a protection order. These vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and can be criminal or civil, temporary or permanent. In most jurisdictions violation of such orders results in arrest and jail time and/or fines. Even if the order is civil, most jurisdictions treat violations as a criminal matter leading to prosecution and incarceration.
In my book, The Safe Approach, I have included comprehensive safety tips and suggestions, as well as hold release techniques, when it becomes necessary to escape from a violent assailant. In addition, the following websites contain comprehensive statistics and resources about this problem: