Dealing With Stalkers

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:


Stalking Resource Center

Network for Surviving Stalking 

AWARE (Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment) 

AARDVARC (An Abuse, Rape and Domestic Violence Aid and Resource Collection)  


Charles Ennis

10 Responses

  1. […] big THANKS to Charles Ennis, author of the Safe Approach Weblog, for his article Dealing With Stalkers. Stalking by clients is something that can happen to almost any of us, regardless of our practice […]

  2. I guess it’s important that an assumption must be made in the “intent” of this behavior that has been called “stalking”… especially if the tenor of this article is that the behavior be labeled a “serious and legitimate threat”.

    Those of us who have been doing psychotherapy for years will recognize that clients come with various needs and styles of attachment and object relations, and various needs and styles of borrowing ego from the therapist.

    It has not been uncommon in my practice to recognize what I might call benign or regressive stalking. The frail suicidal patient who drives by one’s house at night to see if the therapist is home… they continue to drive on to their own home, safer in the knowledge that the therapist is “alive”. It is at that time, an active use of the client’s reliance on ego-lending that is keeping them sustained.

    I’ve had a couple of client’s who have “tracked me down” after being out of treatment for years… sometime seeking to return as a part of a regressive decompensation. None of these patients have had violent intent… even if their wishes were not satisfied by me.

    It strikes me that clients that attempt to intrude on our boundaries are oftern working through the issues that bring them into our offices. The behavior should be addressed in therapy, in my opinion, reflectively- not knee-jerkedly labeled dangerous behavior.

    2 cents,

  3. Given that the reason that I wrote that stalking article was because someone wrote to me asking for help with a stalking problem Ogden, I think that’s a safe assumption to make.

    You make some good points, Ogden, but let me point out that Colin Rowett (1986, Violence in Social Work: A Research Study of Violence in the Context of Local Authority Social Work, pg. 92) noted that 60 % of clients involved in assaultive behavior had existing relationships with their workers that were of at least six months duration. Most often it is not the stranger that attacks the worker, it is the person that you feel “comfortable” with. The person that you think would never do such a thing. I’ve lost count of the times that workers told me: “I never thought they’d do that.” We get complacent and miss the obvious cues that are staring us in the face. Assumptions are not a sound basis for safety. I’d caution you to be very careful indeed about letting your clients track you down like that.

    Also, it seems from your comment about “knee jerk” reactions that you assume that involving the police will invariably result in a donnybrook. I’m a retired cop and a trained martial artist and I don’t like getting into fights. My approach to safety is founded on not letting a situation get to the point where it turns violent. Violence isn’t going to be good for anyone involved, least of all the client. If you cultivate safety awareness and approach these things properly, then you rarely get to the point where violence erupts. And on the rare occasion that does and you have the proper resources in place, then the outburst is quickly and efficiently contained and no one gets hurt.

    Charles Ennis

  4. Cuhulain wrote:

    “I’d caution you to be very careful indeed about letting your clients track you down like that. ”

    Thanks for the word of caution. After 30 years of in-patient and out-patient practice, including patients who have murdered, I think I’ve learned a little something about human nature.

    My “knee-jerk” comment makes no assumptions about police creating donnybrooks. I have the greatest respect for the police, and was the psychotherapist to a major metropolitan police department for years. My comment is meant to remind that relationship and skilled assessment is the key to action in a therapeutic relationship, and that not all “stalking” is stalking.

  5. “Program 911 on your cell phone to speed up emergency response.”

    The local emergency response people are now running ads, telling people NOT to program 911 into their cellphones! It seems that a great percentage of calls going in to the center are purely accidental — they sat on their phone, or the dog toothed the speed dial while “fetching” it, or something.

  6. Dear Chimera:

    You simply would not believe how many bogus 911 calls we receive at ECOMM in the course of a night. The’re accidental, certainly, but there are so many that it seriously impairs our ability to deal with real emergency calls, because we are spending so much time calling back to thoughless people who have:

    1) Left their cel phones unlocked, chucked it in their pocket/backpack/purse and wandered off. I deal with dozens of calls a night where we are listening to people partying in some bar or restaurant or chatting with friends in front of the TV while sitting on their phone, tying up the 911 emergency lines.

    2) Leaving their cel phones laying around where young children can play with them. Most people in Canada don’t realize that even though a cel phone may no longer be activated with the local cel provider, as long as it has a battery in it it must, by CRTC regulations, be allowed to call 911. I’m constantly finding myself talking to children who are playing with their parent’s old cel phone. This can be a real nuisance, because the child tends to keep dialling and call again, and again, and again….

    If you accidentally call 911 by land line or on your cel phone, DO NOT HANG UP. Stay on the phone and the 911 call taker will deal with it quickly. If you realize what you’ve done and hang up in embarrassment, then you’ve just complicated the process because that call taker must then take the time to call back to ensure that it is not an emergency, which takes much longer. If you turn off the phone to avoid dealing with the call back from the call taker, you’re going to discover a police officer knocking on your door to make sure that you are alright. This, of course, reduces the number of cops that are available to take real emergency calls.

    Accidents happen, and those of us managing the 911 lines understand that and aren’t going to give you a hard time when it happens. But we would really appreciate the public taking every precaution to reduce unnecessary 911 calls.

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