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Stalking victim tells Holder: 'I was afraid every day, every night'

By Terry Frieden, CNN Justice Producer
Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department are calling attention to the growing problem of stalking.
Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department are calling attention to the growing problem of stalking.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hannah Perryman says she was stalked for years, beginning in elementary school
  • She spoke at a Justice Department event spotlighting the stalking problem
  • There are millions of victims, officials say

Washington (CNN) -- Illinois teenager Hannah Perryman lived in fear for years until the young stalker who tormented and threatened her was finally convicted. Hannah was on hand at the Justice Department on Tuesday to tell her painful story as Attorney General Eric Holder and other top officials headlined an event designed to call attention to the growing problem of stalking.

Hannah is now a 17-year-old junior at Elgin High School near Chicago. She says the stalking started when she was in elementary school and continued for so many years she believed living a life in constant fear was normal.

Then, a few years ago, she decided to openly declare her fears and take up a public fight against stalking. With the help of her mother, who taught school, a determined policeman and a caring social worker, Hannah's case opened the eyes of students and adults alike and led to a tough new anti-stalking law in Illinois.

"They just couldn't believe that I was afraid every day, every night, every moment of my life," Hannah told the audience in the ornate Great Hall of the Justice Department. "That's been happening to me since I was in fifth grade, so that was pretty normal to me, you know?"

The tormenter in Hannah's case was a girl from the neighborhood who at first hung out for hours and days outside Hannah's house. But after the intimidation escalated to verbal threats to kill Hannah, the courts finally intervened. The offender pleaded guilty and was ordered to stay away.

Because the case was adjudicated in juvenile court, many of the specifics remain under seal, and Illinois officials and Hannah's family and supporters won't talk about many details.

Attorney General Holder paid tribute to Hannah for "the courage to come forward and share her heartbreaking story with the world." Holder said Hannah and her family had "provided a model for how a potential tragedy can be turned into an opportunity" to pass a law strengthening protection of stalking victims.

There are millions of victims, and many of them aren't even certain they are being stalked, officials said.

Cindy Southworth, director of the Safety Net Project, says much of the abuse and torment has moved online. She says virtually every technology program and social networking site is being abused and users are being harassed or stalked.

In extreme cases, victims are killed. In most cases, they are scared or intimidated.

The government defines stalking as a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.

The latest Justice Department statistics are nearly five years old, but they show about 3.4 million people age 18 or older were victims of stalking in 2006. Southworth says the number is surely much higher now. There are no available figures on juvenile stalking victims.

Officials urge individuals to report repeated unwanted phone calls, letters or e-mails. They also want authorities called if there are repeated incidents in which offenders leave flowers or gifts, show up at places waiting for the potential victim, or spread rumors about that person on the internet.

Authorities stressed the individual acts may not be criminal, but collectively if they cause real fear they can violate the law, and courts can order protections for victims of any age. Victims come in all demographic groups, but officials say at least three of every four stalking victims are women.

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