How has the pandemic affected local services and charities, their staff and the communities they serve? Sarah Cheverton talks to Jess, a Stalking Advocate at Aurora New Dawn, a Portsmouth-based charity working with victims and survivors of domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking. Transcribed by Angela Cheverton.
SC: Can you tell me what your job is, how long you’ve been with Aurora and what made you get involved with the organisation?
JD: I had the pleasure of joining the Aurora team as a Stalking Advocate at the beginning of this year, so I’m coming up to five months as part of the team. My involvement with Aurora dates back a few years. Around 2016, 2017, during university I volunteered with their helpline and I came to realise my passion for this field of work. It heavily influenced my studies and domestic abuse became the subject of my undergraduate dissertation. During my Master’s degree, I began working in the domestic abuse field, and my interest began to branch off into stalking.
A number of friends throughout university experienced stalking behaviours, often from disgruntled ex-partners following a breakup – but it never seemed to be recognized as such, and was brushed off as ‘normal’. I found this really interesting as some of [my friends] restricted their lives due to the behaviour, [and] it was just considered normal. My Master’s dissertation examined the prevalence and awareness of stalking amongst university students.
Since volunteering, I have followed Aurora on social media. Towards the end of last year, I saw they had an opening for a stalking advocate, and so – with of a bit of gentle persuasion from my supportive mum – I applied for it. As Gina [Pruett, a DVA Car Advocate] said in her interview, this job is so much more than a job. As a team, we have such drive and passion to help our clients. Everyone deserves to live free from abuse or harassment but for some people this right is taken away. Being able to play [a] part [in] supporting victims to take back control of their lives is such an honour.
This job can definitely be challenging and tiring at times. [Sometimes] I’ve come home and fallen asleep before 6pm, which would have been unheard of during my student days. I wouldn’t change it for the world though. Seeing clients come out the other end and get their lives back is all the fuel I need to keep going.
Can you tell me what a Stalking Advocate does and what an ‘average’ day for you looked like before the pandemic?
My role as a stalking advocate is to provide victims of stalking with specialist independent support, advice and advocacy. I’m there as a point of contact and support for victims throughout their journey, to ensure that their voices are being heard and that they remain aware of all options available to them, so they’re able to make the best decisions for themselves. The support I provide [is] unique to each client. [We] have discussions to ascertain what support they’d like and build [an] individualized package of support.
Stalking is diverse and no two cases are the same, so clients’ needs are different. A large aspect of my role revolves around safety, which sits at the centre of all of our work. I advise and support clients so they feel confident [about] how to safeguard themselves and their family and to live their lives in the safest way possible.
Many victims find themselves unable to carry out their normal routines due to the [stalker’s] behaviours. So it’s about exploring ways we can support them to get back to these routines whilst maintaining their safety. I work with each client to develop a safety plan and we review this and develop it as the journey progresses.
I often also support in areas such as the police. Victims don’t need to report to the police in order for us to support them. But where they wish to do this or if they’re unsure about doing [it], I can provide advice and support to help them with their decision. For those who have reported, I support [them] throughout the police process and any court processes that might occur. Going to court can be very daunting for victims and I help to ensure they feel as safe as possible on the day. I can also attend with them for emotional support.
I’m usually based in the Portsmouth office and a typical day would consist of providing telephone support, advice and check-ins with clients (with a lot of tea consumption and biscuit eating in-between). Some clients prefer to meet face-to-face rather than talking on the phone, so I [am] often out and about in the community, traveling around Hampshire and sometimes the Isle of Wight.
Multi-agency working is a large aspect of my role: linking [with] other agencies is part of my average working day. It’s important to build a web of support around the victim and ensure they’re supported in all necessary areas. Sometimes it might be linking in with a client’s GP to ensure that their health and wellbeing needs are supported, or with housing [teams] around facilitating [a] move if necessary.
Aurora has a fantastic working relationship with the police [and] I work very closely with them around supporting clients. We are partners in the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Stalking Clinic, which is a multi-agency response for stalking cases. We hold weekly triage meetings during which we review and identify cases to pass through to our monthly stalking clinic, which consists of representatives from mental health, police, probation, CPS and ourselves as victim advocates. These monthly meetings help provide a strong multi-agency approach to source cases currently undergoing police investigation. We aim to assess and manage the risk posed by stalkers to reduce reoffending, so we aim to identify those who might be unwell and to apply appropriate interventions in such cases, to coordinate around the investigation, and to ensure a well-rounded support package for victims.
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A lot of people might assume that stalking must have decreased significantly during the pandemic. Is that the case, and if not, why is that, and how has it changed the way you work now?
Unfortunately, even Covid-19 isn’t enough to stop stalkers. It is still a very real and prevalent issue.
We’re still receiving calls from victims and referrals from other agencies throughout lockdown so we can see it hasn’t let up at all. The lockdown might have stopped stalkers from carrying out physical, offline behaviours such as following a victim or loitering outside the home, [but] it isn’t stopping them completely. Instead it is just presenting stalkers with a challenge and they’re adapting and changing their methods in response.
Before lockdown stalkers might have been time-restricted on when they could carry out their stalking, such as by a job. Now [they] have unlimited time on their hands to fixate and obsess over their victims. The routines of victims are also more predictable since lockdown, which means that stalkers are more likely to know exactly where a victim will be. Since lockdown there [is] increased usage of technology to ensure people [are] linked in with their loved ones. This is something stalkers are using, and we’re beginning to see an increasing number turn to online behaviours. They might start texting and calling and using various social media to make contact.
We’re likely to see further changes following the process of lockdown as the restrictions are eased and the freedom of movement increased. It’s likely we’ll see a rise again in physical stalking behaviours. Lockdown has definitely challenged us in the ways that we work but the Aurora team rose to the challenge and adapted amazingly. I’m so proud to be part of a team presented with a pandemic who said ‘No, you’re not stopping us,’ and continued to provide the same level of support as before.
Our helpline has been amazing and it’s supported and advised so many people already. As of last Friday [15th May 2020], we’d helped 300 people through the helpline. Although we cannot see clients face to face for the time being we remain just as linked in with them. Despite the fact I’m working from home like the rest of the team, I remain in regular phone contact with my clients and video calls are also available for those who prefer this.
Multi-agency working is still ongoing despite other agencies also working from home. There’s been a lot of telephone diverting and a lot of telephone tennis and emails, but the outcome has been the same and all agencies are just as determined to provide [the] support and services. Our weekly stalking meetings and monthly clinics are ongoing [and] just take place over conference call instead.
I’m finding self-care is more vital than ever. It’s more difficult to not bring your work home with you when you’re working from home. It’s easier to fall into a pattern of thinking that as you’re at home you need to work longer and harder than you would in the office. I’ve been guilty of eating lunch at my desk a few times while scrolling through work, rather than taking a proper break. But it’s times like this you need to be more structured around your working day and to ensure you’re taking these breaks. There’s no one sitting nearby like they would be [usually to]say Jess, go and take your break now. So I’m making more of an effort to walk away from the desk during breaks, and to sit outside or go downstairs to make sure I get that head space.
I’m definitely missing the hustle and bustle of the office. It’s hard not seeing my colleagues every day but we’re still connected as a team. We have a WhatsApp group and I know everyone’s always on the end of the phone if needed. We have two meetings over video call regularly, which gives us a chance to set time aside, check in with each other, and reflect on how we’ve been doing and how we’ve been feeling, which is really important.
What are the impacts of being stalked on victims and survivors? Are there any additional impacts on them from the pandemic and lockdown?
The effects on victims can be all-encompassing and reach into all areas of their lives; and [it doesn’t] just go away when the stalking behaviour does. Survivors are often left to pick up the pieces. Victims often enter a constant state of hypervigilance due to the stalking behaviours, constantly on high alert, watching and waiting for the stalker to do something.
If they’re outside they might be constantly looking around and feeling as if they’re being followed. When they’re not home they might be fearful of every sound they hear. Being in this constant state of hypervigilance – especially for long periods of time – is exhausting and can further negative effects on a victim’s physical and mental wellbeing. Victims often suffer from exhaustion [and] may have difficulties sleeping. All of this can contribute to a weakened immune system, and may cause victims to fall ill.
Victims also often suffer negatively in terms of their mental health; they might experience depression or anxiety, [or] even suffer from PTSD following the stalking. V[They may feel] a lack of control over their lives and a sense of isolation, [so their] social life and relationships can suffer. They might become less trusting and have difficulty forming and maintaining relationships in their lives.
I’ve seen quite a lot [of] victims isolate themselves from their loved ones, just out of a feeling they need to protect them. If [they] aren’t engaging in their usual activities as well, this can impact their social lives. Some victims end up relocating in order to escape the behaviours, which might mean they have to start over in a new area where they might not have any connections, which can be really difficult. There are also wider effects, such as financial impact, performance at work might suffer, or they might find themselves unable to work. There’s added costs, such as extra security on the property.
That’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s evident how difficult [everyone is] finding lockdown: to be housebound day in, day out, and to feel anxious when going out and about. However, many victims were already living this before the pandemic. The nature of stalking and the effects it can have can be so restrictive. Victims often feel unable to participate in activities they used to or to live their usual routines. They might feel unable to go to work, as their stalker knows where they work or turns up [there]. Sometimes victims stop leaving the house completely out of fear of their stalker.
Many victims are finding it harder to cope during lockdown as they’re separated from their support networks. Often family and friends are crucial support and being in lockdown [means] they are unable to meet up. Some of my clients have to remove themselves from social media due to behaviours they’re experiencing online. This can mean lockdown is especially isolating for them. For such clients, support can be provided in terms of increasing their sense of online safety. We provide advice and practical support around safeguarding themselves [so they can] stay in touch with loved ones.
For some victims, stalking will have ceased during lockdown for a number of reasons, such as the stalker not knowing their home address or not actually knowing enough about them to locate their online presence. However, even in these cases the fear and anxiety does not go away. Some clients [tell] me they feel like sitting ducks in this situation, and [after] the lockdown [is] lifted, the behaviours will continue, [so there is] extra anxiety and stress.
And finally, if any of our readers are concerned they or someone they know is being stalked, what would you say to them?
Echoing what Gina said last week, we see you. We believe you. We’re here for you. You’re not alone with this.
I’m a huge believer in trusting your gut instinct. If something doesn’t feel right to you, pick up the phone and reach out to us on 023 9247 9254. Alternatively, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.