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Commentary: Stalking has become an epidemic

  • Story Highlights
  • Jane Velez-Mitchell: New study says 3 million-plus Americans are stalked
  • She says most victims don't report the crime to law enforcement
  • Velez-Mitchell: Few cases wind up being resolved by police and court action
  • She says we need to do counseling and victims need to come forward
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By Jane Velez-Mitchell
HLN
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Editor's note: Jane Velez-Mitchell is host of the HLN show, "Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell," a topical event-driven show with a wide range of viewpoints. Velez-Mitchell is the author of "Secrets Can Be Murder: What America's Most Sensational Crimes Tell Us About Ourselves."

Jane Velez-Mitchell says the targets of stalkers aren't just celebrities and that millions are victims.

Jane Velez-Mitchell says the targets of stalkers aren't just celebrities and that millions are victims.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Hollywood starlet Jennifer Love Hewitt recently obtained a restraining order against a man who she claims had been stalking her since 2007.

The man sent hundreds of threatening letters, as well as plane tickets to Australia, and he left flowers at the home of Hewitt's mother.

Uma Thurman had even more frightening brushes with her stalker before he was convicted. Jack Jordan visited her house and also tried to get into her on-set trailer.

Thurman eventually faced Jordan in court, where he was convicted of stalking and aggravated harassment and sentenced to three years probation and psychiatric counseling. This, to me, sounds like a victory for Jordan, since he was placed in the same courtroom as his victim and could eventually go right back to stalking.

Many assume this type of thing is relegated only to those who grace the covers of gossip magazines and movie posters. Sheila Ann Grayson wasn't famous, but that didn't save her. Police in South Carolina say Grayson was killed by her stalker last May, two weeks after taking out a restraining order against him.

A new study published this month by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated based on a survey that 3.4 million Americans per year are victims of stalking. For some perspective, that's more than the entire population of Chicago, Illinois.

The comprehensive study found that divorced or separated individuals are at the highest risk of being stalked. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be stalked, and two thirds of female victims are stalked by males.

It is becoming an epidemic -- 1.4 million Americans were stalked a decade ago, according to a similar Justice Department study, and new technology is partly responsible for the increase.

Texting, e-mailing and social networking sites make it easier to connect with friends. But they also make it easier for stalkers to connect with -- and track -- their targets.

I recently saw a cellphone advertisement promoting an application that allows the user to track friends on a map and see what they're doing. The ad sent chills up my spine. What a tool that would be for someone's obsessed ex-lover.

America's law enforcement system doesn't play a dominant role in deterring stalking. Most incidents aren't reported by the victims. And according to the study, of the victims surveyed, 15 percent credited law enforcement warnings for keeping their stalker in line while only 10 percent said a restraining order did the trick.

Even locking stalkers up only works until they're free. Only 6 percent of victims said the stalking stopped after the offender was arrested or incarcerated.

Stalkers often have underlying psychological problems or are socially incompetent, and about 30 percent have delusional disorders, according to a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

So trying to solve stalking cases through legal means is like trying to clear a roach problem without getting rid of the food lying around. The American Journal of Psychiatry study recommends a mixture of legal action and therapeutic intervention.

But intervention must happen early. Troubled children who get no counseling could grow up and develop the dysfunctional traits identified in the American Journal of Psychiatry study. In elementary school we should teach nonviolent conflict resolution and healthy communication skills, which will help children cope with issues like rejection and sexuality later in life.

I've been stalked and it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I can say firsthand that it becomes a hunter-prey relationship.

So we must try psychological approaches that emphasize healthy interaction between consenting persons. Therapy could help early offenders see their victims as humans again, instead of objects.

Some stalkers show addictive behavior, and their victim is the drug. Just as marijuana is seen as a gateway drug, I believe stalking is a gateway crime that leads to violence and even murder. This approach provides another angle from which to attack the problem.

Unlike other crimes, stalking crosses all classes, races, and age groups. This makes it difficult to pin down causes, but provides opportunities to try out these creative and inexpensive prevention techniques.

But we can only change our approach to this problem if victims speak up. Approximately 60 percent of stalking victims don't report to the police, according to the Justice Department study.

Though law enforcement alone isn't the answer, imagine if all 3.4 million victims had reported. It would provide authorities with a much larger pool of information. And with such a large number of people affected, it becomes a problem politicians can't ignore.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Jane Velez-Mitchell.

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