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Congressional Briefing on 10 Years of VAWA

Remarks by Susan Herman
March 11, 2004

Let me say thank you, Carole Black and Lifetime, and let me also acknowledge Kris Rose, who is representing Diane Stuart, from the Office on Violence Against Women. Thank you very much for the work that you do.

My name is Susan Herman, and I serve as the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. At the National Center, we work with victims of any kind of crime, all crime, violent, nonviolent, anything. But when you open your doors to any kind of crime victim, that means that about 75 percent of the work that you do involves violence against women. So we are quite enmeshed in these issues. It is what we do every day.

I thank you, Lifetime Television, for your tremendous efforts, keeping issues about violence against women before the public and our lawmakers, and I thank the members of the Congressional Women's Caucus for convening this briefing to take stock of our progress over the last 10 years.

These markers are important. It is important to see where we've come from, what we've accomplished, and what we need to do in the future. And I thank all of you for staying through this briefing. It that may be a little longer, but it's a terrific briefing.

I'm also pleased to be here today to be on this panel. We call ourselves the "And" panel. This is the Violence Against Women Act, it's about domestic violence and sexual assault and stalking and it's OK to be second, because it's better to be second than not be in the room.

I'm here to talk about our fight against stalking, a crime that is serious, pervasive, and all too often deadly. And what I'd like to do at the beginning is I'd like to unpack that statement. What is that about?

Stalking is Serious

First, stalking is serious. Contrary to public myth, stalking is about a lot more than somebody following a celebrity around town trying to get an autograph. Stalking is usually defined as a series of acts directed against a specific person that would make a reasonable person afraid.

Now, sometimes, each of those acts in that series of acts - sometimes, each of those acts constitutes a separate crime. A woman's tires are slashed, her house is burglarized, her yard is trashed. Each action, a separate crime. Sometimes, though, and this is what makes it tricky, sometimes the isolated acts are not criminal, and, out of context, they may appear innocuous, or harmless.

For example, it may seem harmless for a woman to get a dozen roses delivered to her door. It sounds nice. We all might like that. But if the woman has received a message before that says, "the day I kill you, I'll send you a dozen roses," you can understand how that would induce fear.

Now imagine how that victim feels when she moves to a confidential location and receives another dozen roses. Now imagine how she feels telling the police that she's being stalked and someone's sending her roses. Honestly, put yourself in her shoes. Do you want to be the one that calls the police and says, "I fear for my life"? "How do you know that?" "Because someone's sending me roses."

Why is this an important concept and an important image to have in your minds? Because we haven't learned how to see stalking and recognize it the way we as a society have learned how to see domestic violence. Take yourself back 20 years and imagine we were talking about those broken bones, those bruises, that depressed woman, all those things you're getting in the emergency room. That's not just broken bones and bruises, that's domestic violence. We taught people how to identify it and see it, and then we taught people how to do something about it.

We don't yet know how to see stalking. And there are lots of reasons for that. It's understandable, but we have to face the fact that we're a good 25 years behind how people have learned how to look at and talk about and relate to other kinds of violence against women.

Stalking is Pervasive

OK, let's move to the second part of the statement. Stalking is pervasive. The latest research tells us that in the United States, one in 12 women and one in 45 men will be stalked in their lifetime. One-point-four million people in America are stalked every year. The vast majority are female victims stalked by someone they know.

As troubling as these numbers are, I would challenge them because they are too low.  The numbers reflect an outdated definition of stalking that emphasizes people following you around and communicating with you inappropriately; the popular conception of stalking which takes you away from a whole range of dangerous stalking behavior--some of which co-exists with domestic violence and abuse. What happens in domestic violence situations? A series of acts that terrorize women in their homes, a series of acts directed against a person that instill fear. That's how we now define stalking.

So, don't tell me only one in 12 women is a victim of stalking. I'm telling you, almost every woman that is a victim of domestic violence--and that's one in four--has been stalked. Then there are people who have been stalked outside of that context. It is pervasive. That's what I'm trying to tell you. It's not just the celebrities - it includes almost all domestic violence victims and a large percentage of sexual assault victims, too. It is pervasive.

Stalking Can Be Lethal

Third, stalking can be lethal. It's not innocent. It's not just obsessional love that's about somebody showing up all the time and maybe trying to crawl in your house through the window. It can be lethal. Stalkers not only terrorize their victims, but all too often they murder them.

Seventy-six percent of female homicide victims that were killed by an intimate (and that's just people we knew were killed by an intimate) had also been stalked by that intimate partner in the year prior to their murder. For seventy-six percent, the murder came after stalking.

Fifty-four percent of those victimss --  that's a lot of people -- fifty-four percent of those victims had reported the stalking to the police before the stalker killed them. Now, what we know is that stalking was only recently criminalized. Somebody says, I was stalked, not everybody knows how to deal with that. They don't recognize it. But if we can make these links and say domestic violence includes stalking and stalking is often lethal, maybe it will make a difference. It doesn't matter whether part of it is getting roses, this guy is threatening this woman, and she knows if something is not done, she's going to be killed. Seventy-six percent of them are killed, that's what we know.

Stalking isn't new, but it's only recently been criminalized. California passed the first law in 1992. That's not a long time ago. It's fairly recent. It's understandable that our law enforcement and our social service agencies haven't caught up yet, but we have to build on the work that we've done in the domestic violence and the sexual assault world and not take another 25 years to catch up. Let's build on what we have learned; we’re not starting from scratch.

One of the greatest accomplishments of the Violence Against Women Act is simply recognizing that stalking is a form of violence against women. Now we talk about domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking. By including stalking in the purpose areas for violence against women grants, the act aimed a spotlight on stalking and raised public awareness about these dangers.

Stalking Resource Center

It also provided crucial funding for training and support of all kinds of people working on these issues. In 2000, the Office on Violence Against Women funded the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime, to provide training and technical assistance to OVW grantees across the country.

When we first opened the doors of the Stalking Resource Center four years ago, we had all kinds of plans of how we were going to work with communities around stalking, and instead we found ourselves giving "Stalking 101" to communities around the country. They didn't know what stalking was. You can't talk about how to create a multidisciplinary team to address stalking until they know what you're talking about. We were 10, 20 years behind where we thought we were.

Now, four years later, with ongoing support, the demand for our expertise is greater, and it's much more sophisticated. We now offer advanced, specialized training on such topics as law enforcement strategies to investigate and actively combat stalking-- counter-stalking techniques -- and how to prosecute stalking cases now involving technology, the use of technology to stalk. We weren't talking about that four years ago. Nobody was ready to talk about that. Now we're talking about that.

Our Web site is rich with materials, and requests for technical assistance have more than doubled in the last year alone, allowing us to train more than 1,000 criminal justice professionals in 2003.

Next Steps

Looking forward, though, there's so much more that needs to be done. Before I go through my list, I want to say one of the most important things that I've heard here all day is the suggestion that we have hearings on the Hill and that we all do all that we can do to make that happen. Long, detailed, comprehensive hearings, and not in this room -- in a room full of members of Congress, not the choir -- where people understand and listen to the stories about the consequences of violence against women in this country for hours on end. I want members of Congress to understand the impact, really understand the impact, before we start talking about recommendations.

What else do we need to do? We need to continue to raise public awareness about the prevalence and dangers of stalking. Last January (2004), marked our first National Stalking Awareness Month, and we're indebted to Senators Biden and DeWine, and Representative Wilson for their leadership on this Congressional resolution. But we have to build on this success. We need to help friends, family and neighbors understand that stalking is serious, not just help victims understand what's happening to them. When they talk to somebody, they have to get the right response.

We have to help criminal justice agencies and victims agencies build their capacity to respond to this crime. We've done a lot to produce tools like the roll call training that Lifetime helped us develop to motivate law enforcement officers to respond effectively to stalking.

Now, we understand why it is that if your car is stolen, you call the police. Of course you call the police when your car is stolen - otherwise you're not going to get insurance. That's why you call the police. What do you get when you call the police for stalking? Not much. So, if we're going to ask victims to report, we have to deliver. We can't just say we encourage you to report. There's got to be something that happens when you do.

We need much better documentation about the prevalence of stalking. We've had a groundbreaking study, the Tjaden study that I quoted earlier - groundbreaking research about the incidence of violence against women in America. That study now is outdated, and needs to be redone. But even more important, our two major measurements of crime in this country -- the National Victimization Survey and the uniform crime reportss -- neither one of them includes anything about stalking. If you want to know what's happening regarding violence against women in America, we need to get stalking into those two measures of crime.

We need to update our stalking laws, to change the definitions, so that we're responding to new ways to stalk that weren't contemplated 10, 12 years ago when these laws were made -- Global Positioning Satellite systems, mini-video cameras and computer spyware. We didn't know about that when we defined stalking years ago. So we need to change the definition in our laws.

We also need to talk more specifically about what fear means, and make it the generalized fear that women experience. Above all, we need to create more resources to combat this serious crime. Counter-stalking tools, such as surveillance cameras and wire-tapping equipment must be available for law enforcement officers. Every jurisdiction in this country now could have access to that equipment via homeland security funds. I want the detective down the hall who is investigating stalking cases to be able to have it also. There's a lot of terror right in our homes.

In order for victims to help collect evidence, stalking victims need to have video cameras, extra phone lines, cell phones and other technology. Congress needs to look at funding both kinds of equipment, for law enforcement and for victims.

Stalking victims also need services tailored to their needs, including housing, counseling, legal services - similar, but not the same, as those services for domestic violence victims. If you're being stalked, or hunted, as some people refer to it, there are long- term, very specific needs unique to stalking victims.

We must not only address the trauma that's common among all victims of violence, but we have to address the long-term, ongoing nature of stalking. It's an ongoing crime. And we have to address the distinct crimes that are often embedded within it. You can't just talk to a stalking victim and talk about stalking abstractly. You have to be able to deal with the burglary, the arson, the harassment, or the assault that may comprise the stalking.

Conclusion

Over the last 10 years, we've made enormous progress. At the National Center's Stalking Resource Center, we are very encouraged that our expertise is in demand, and that criminal justice and social service professionals are committing to holding offenders accountable and keeping victims safe. We're grateful for the support of the Office on Violence Against Women and the continued attention of Congress and Lifetime.

We look forward to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and working together to make it an even better tool to combat all violence against women, including stalking. Thank you.