Sally (not her real name), who is in her early thirties, entered a relationship with her abuser when she was in her teens and he was a few years her senior.
The pair were together for more than a decade, buying a house and starting a family, until, Sally found out her partner had been having an affair. After already enduring years of physical and emotional abuse during the relationship, the break-up sparked a terrifying ordeal of stalking and harassment that is still not over.
“He just couldn’t accept that he didn’t have that control over me anymore,” Sally said.
Not only was she bound to her abuser by their son and mortgage, but also through their working lives.
He became extremely jealous, Sally said, bombarding her with texts whenever a man paid her any attention.
He would ask their child ‘what mummy had been up to’ or ‘who mummy had been seeing’, to the point her son even started to ask her questions himself.
His interrogations extended to her family members and others, asking whether there had been men in the house.
At one point he broke into her home, went through her things and sent her pictures of her own belongings.
After ten months of abuse, Sally finally decided ‘enough was enough’ when he printed off a CCTV picture of her with a male friend at work, confronting her publicly with more of the same questions.
Until then she had written off his behaviour as jealous and controlling, not wanting to involve the police for fear of affecting her son’s life or provoking her abuser more.
But as the stalking and abuse continued, she realised it had consumed her whole life.
After reporting her stalker to the police she was granted a non-molestation order, but he continued unabated, masking his harassment by pretending it was related to their child.
He also publicly painted Sally as the jealous ex, accusing her of many of the same things she was being subjected to.
It was ‘extremely claustrophobic’, she said, like she was being watched all the time. She began to feel unsafe at home, instead staying with friends or family.
“By the time we ended our relationship I was not the same person,” she added. “I used to be extroverted but I became shy, introverted, I didn’t want to be around people, developed trust issues. I didn’t know who I was anymore.”
Sally eventually got a restraining order and, last year, her abuser was charged with stalking.
The Crown Prosecution Service had to prove two examples of stalking for a conviction. But the court found him not guilty, exposing what Sally believes are huge flaws in the system.
Her court-appointed solicitor received a 500-page evidence dossier the day before the trial, she said, and much evidence which showed a pattern of stalking behaviour was disregarded.
“As a victim, having to justify myself to the police and relive it all was extremely traumatic,” she said. “Court is probably one of the most horrible things I have ever experienced. Knowing he’s there and knowing you are going to get questioned and his defence is basically going to call you a liar. That’s really hard.”
More needed to be done to educate police officers, magistrates and judges on how to spot the signs of stalking, she said.
Sally is now working to put the past behind her, with a new partner and hearings in the family courts to win custody of her son.
But the family courts brought up one more shocking surprise. It was revealed her ex-partner, who she had known intimately for over ten years, had dozens of previous charges and more than 15 convictions for crimes including assault and animal cruelty.
For her new relationship she found out if her partner had a violent past through Clare’s Law, which allows the public to ask police if their partner poses a risk to them.
Sally said Clare’s Law was vital for anyone entering a new relationship, and also implored victims of abuse to record any incidents as they happen to build up a log of evidence.
Victims of stalking typically endure around 100 incidents before they finally go to the police. Sally said that had to stop and urged anyone to report incidents as early as possible.
“I hate the fact I didn’t follow it through and I wish I’d reported it sooner,” she said. “But as a victim you have to accept what happened and forgive yourself. I’ve forgiven myself for decisions that I made.”
Reports of stalking and harassment have risen in Sussex by 48 per cent over the last 12 months – until 2012 it was not recognised as a specific crime.
With social restrictions in place, online stalking has increased by 75 per cent in that time.
Sussex Police vow to do more to tackle stalking and harassment
Sally’s stalker was not convicted despite overwhelming evidence and, after lodging formal complaints, she received apologies from Sussex Police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
But she has called for more to be done to secure convictions for stalking and harassment.
She heaped praise on the advocacy service Veritas Justice – a stalking support charity to which victims are referred by Sussex Police.
Veritas’ director, Claudia Ortiz, said stalking statistics were likely considerably higher as it is under-reported and under-recognised.
“Sadly, the negative impact of this form of fixated, obsessed and unwanted communication is still not fully appreciated by many,” she said. “The wider implications of this pandemic are still to be understood but the increasing levels of domestic abuse and domestic homicides over the last few months are of great concern to us. With 80 per cent of our clients being stalked by ex-intimate partners, we know that demand for our service will only increase over the coming months and beyond, so it is imperative to ensure that victims of stalking are not forgotten in this crisis.
“We are determined more than ever to continue providing victims of stalking across Sussex with the help and support they need at this challenging time. No one should have to live in fear.”
Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Katy Bourne, herself a victim of stalking, has set out tackling the crime as a priority in her upcoming Police and Crime Plan.
She said the tragic death of Shana Grice in 2016, who was murdered by her boyfriend despite repeatedly reporting him to the police for stalking, was a ‘real wake-up call’ and revealed huge issues Sussex Police needed to address.
She commissioned an independent review into how Sussex Police deals with stalking and harassment in 2017, which found work was needed particularly on recording and recognising patterns of stalking behaviour.
The increase in cases was ‘alarming and distressing’, said Mrs Bourne, but suggested it was a sign officers were now more able to identify instances of stalking and harassment and victims more comfortable coming forward.
Sussex Police was the first force in the country to issue a Stalking Protection Order, legislation introduced in January last year that prohibits offenders from contacting victims, publishing any material relating to them or going to certain areas.
It also grants police powers to enter their homes, force them to check in at a police station every week and place monitoring software on their devices. Breaching an order can result in a jail sentence, fine or both. Twenty-nine have been secured in the last twelve months – the highest total outside London.
Detective Chief Inspector Mick Richards, of the force’s Public Protection Command, pointed to the police’s work with groups like Veritas, the National Stalking Helpline, Paladin and the Suzy Lamplugh Trust.
“Equally important is the training we give to our staff,” he said.
“In addition the training that all front-line officers and staff receive, we have an expert group of more than 90 officers and staff across the force with additional skills around stalking, and who ensure that our individual investigations are subject of review. We have also set up a Stalking Scrutiny panel and have welcomed on to it a number of representatives from partners including the judiciary, the stalking advocacy services, the force’s Independent Advisory Group and the PCC’s office, to provide independent scrutiny of our working practices, response to victims, and pursuit of offenders.
“In another initiative we have been one of the police forces trialling a new ‘Stalking Screening’ process. This has been designed to assist our front line responders in quickly and effectively identifying and responding to the Fixated, Obsessive, Unwanted and Repeated (FOUR) behaviours that represent Stalking, setting out a number of options and actions to immediately improve the safeguarding of the victim.”
People can report stalking or harassment online or by calling 101 or in person at your local police station, but people should call 999 if they are in danger.
Veritas Justice, which provides advocacy and support for victims of stalking, can be reached on 01273 234773.
The National Stalking Helpline provides advice and guidance to victims of stalking or harassment. Its helpline is 0808 802 0300.
Further local information and advice is also available at SafeSpaceSussex and on the Sussex Police website.