A photo of someone walking on a shadowy area of a city being followed.

First Person

I Tried to Protect My Daughters From a Stalker

More than three-fourths of female stalking victims are murdered. Why aren’t these crimes taken seriously?

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The day my 15-year-old daughter received a video of an erect penis through Facebook Messenger was not the day The Incident started. The penis belonged to my older daughter’s former high-school boyfriend, whom we’ll call B. When they broke up, he stalked her, turning up places he wasn’t invited—parties she was attending with her other friends—and refusing to leave. More recently, he had been sending vulgar photos and videos through texts and Facebook Messenger. She tried to ignore him, but finally sought a protective order in Cook County (Illinois) domestic-violence courthouse when he threatened to “bring his guns” to wherever she was. Although she was given professional advice in filling out the form, she was denied the order. And then B. turned his attention to her younger sister.

Rather than appeal the civil decision, we opened a criminal case because B., who is not a minor, was targeting my younger daughter, who was. Stalking is a crime in every state, according to the Stalking Resource Center, and states create their own laws pertaining to stalking. My older daughter tried to get an order of protection, but she did not file a court case—she made a petition to the civil court. Had she gotten the order and had he transgressed it by something the court deemed to be stalking, then he would have committed a felony; stalking is always a felony in Illinois. When an adult harasses a minor as B. did to my younger daughter, the State’s Attorney decides on the charge—stalking, harassment, or something else. Seven and a half million people are stalked annually in the United States and 76 percent of intimate partner femicide victims have been stalked by their partner. My daughters and I were not taking B.’s threats lightly, but getting others to take them seriously proved challenging.

While the head of security at my daughter’s high school offered my daughter an escort service in and out of the building, her academic counselor didn’t share my sense of urgency. As I sat in her office, recounting B’s past and alerting her to his access to weapons, I thought I was offering her a portrait of an archetypal school shooter that would propel her to action. Everytown for Gun Safety reports that 86 percent of shootings with child fatalities were related to domestic or family violence. The counselor sent one email that I was copied on and went back to her job. I can’t presume to know what was running through this counselor’s mind, but it struck me that she believed this was something unfolding in and around my home, limited to me, and not one that related to the school. However, the jilted, rageful, armed-and-dangerous defendant in a lawsuit might well choose to bring his rage into the victim’s school, if statistics are correct. We should all care, even if it isn’t our lawsuit.

According to a Special Report for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, three in four stalking victims know their offender in some capacity. From the Journal of Forensic Sciences, we know that “intimate partner stalkers frequently approach their targets and their behaviors escalate quickly.” Frequently approach means they often feel emboldened to be in proximity to their victims. Escalate quickly means things turn violent fast and can end in death—of the victim, bystanders, and even the stalker. Stalking laws in Illinois were tightened on January 1, 2019. The new law expands rules about who can bring a stalking lawsuit; the head of an organization, such as a school, may now bring suit, for example. Cyber-harassment is now classified as stalking. As before, a victim is still under pressure to prove that a “reasonable” person would feel fear and that the offender has made stalking gestures more than one time. These changes are fairly minor; our case took place in the last months of 2018. My older daughter may have been denied the protective order she sought in civil court for a few reasons: a judge might consider vulgar photos between exes something other than stalking; the accused had only overtly threatened once (to bring guns), not twice; she knew he had access to guns but couldn’t prove that to the judge.

Once we were inside the criminal justice system, the wheels felt well-oiled. Where my older daughter may have been dismissed partly for being the ex-partner of the accused, my younger daughter and I—who had seemingly no connection to this man—had the attention of law enforcement. My minor daughter testified on tape while a state’s attorney watched behind one-way glass. A committee met with me about their plan for the case. My daughter worked with a methodical detective who gathered digital evidence (a “phone drop” from my daughter’s phone) before law enforcement eventually made the arrest. Wasn’t I lucky to have a job with enough vacation time and an understanding boss so that I could keep pulling my daughter out of high school to meet with the criminal team? What happens to those who can’t take the time off work to meet with detectives? Are their cases dropped, their safety sacrificed?

Even with the cooperation of law enforcement, I couldn’t shake the terror I felt. I knew that B. had access to an arsenal of weapons within his home, and that he had been banned from his own high-school graduation for threatening to bring them. Those were both what law enforcement would call anecdotal claims; I couldn’t prove either. Time was the element of danger now. In their efforts to carefully line up an airtight case before making an arrest, four months elapsed during which time my daughter and I felt unprotected (my older daughter had returned to her own home in another state and I believed she was safer there). Friends urged me to get a gun license and keep a firearm next to my bed. (I didn’t.) Sometimes the police parked a decoy car in front of my house for days as a deterrent. I had my dogs—but I knew they wouldn’t really save me if someone wished to get in. Protecting ourselves within our home or in our environment was apparently up to us during this waiting period. I tried to imagine what it was like to be inside the mind of B. What else might he do? And would I be ready? My out-of-state daughter checked with me often on the timing of the suit. She was afraid for us and the dogs. My younger daughter was perhaps more insulated from the real dangers we faced; she didn’t bring the case up. Of all my questions during our long wait, the one that enraged me most was this: Why wasn’t there a better plan I could tap into, with the help of law enforcement, that would guarantee our safety while the trial was pending?

The week of our court date, national news was flooded by the story of the Chicago murder of Dr. Tamara O’Neal, whose ex-fiancé, Juan, showed up at Mercy Hospital, where she worked, and shot her and two others before killing himself. Juan had on record an order of protection by his former wife, showing a pattern of stalking and violence. According to victimsofcrime.org, 76 percent of femicide victims have been stalked by their killer. Dr. O’Neal did call 911 on her ex-fiancé. Either police didn’t respond, or their response wasn’t adequate. She died needlessly as this jilted lover acted on his rage. I was determined my daughters and I would not become statistics, nor—in our death—the recipients of a heartbreaking shrine on the concrete.

I reported to court on a late November Thursday. I went alone, with one daughter out of state and the other in English class. B. had lost weight and looked unsteady. His hair was strangely matted and he wore white cotton gloves, indoors. When the judge called his name, he approached the bench and I did too. The judge asked B. to clearly say his first and last name, and he failed to do it, stumbling over the words and clearing his throat. The judge reprimanded him loudly. The free criminal defense lawyer took him and his family aside and advised B. to plead guilty. He got a warning as his sentence, a prohibition to have any contact with anyone in our family for a year. The State’s Attorney did not call it stalking. Instead, B. was charged with disorderly conduct—a misdemeanor. A piece of paper, and the threat of a bigger punishment next time, stand between him and my daughters—one that expires in a year. He is not a felon, nor is he on the sex-offender registry.

Our half-year of fear hadn’t come to much. He still knows where we live. As a 19-year-old standing in civil court, showing unwanted photos of her ex-boyfriend’s genitals to a judge, without proof they were unwanted or proof of his weapons possession, my daughter was dismissed without the order of protection she sought. As an adult filing on behalf of a minor, I was taken seriously. What about the many young women who can’t use another threat—to a minor sibling–to mount a bigger case? Even the more efficient criminal system that called on the FBI to verify the originating address of the photos, that assigned us a detective to make the arrest, that parked a protective decoy car out in front of my house, can’t protect us if the indicted stalker chooses to violate his sentence. And what happens when the one-year term of the sentence is up? It is still up to us to guarantee our own safety, now that we have had the great misfortune of meeting B. The Stalking Resource Center reports that one in seven stalking victims move to protect themselves; I can see why. The truth is, we are still not taking victims seriously because they are often young and female. And that negligence can lead to their deaths. Even when law enforcement does respond appropriately, dangerous waiting periods and light or hard-to-enforce sentences still leave stalking victims shockingly vulnerable to attack and harm.

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