CARBONDALE — Once awareness begins to increase about what stalking is, the number of reported incidents of the crime is likely to rise, one victim's advocate said Thursday.

This past week, victim's advocate Laura Van Abbema, of The Women's Center in Carbondale, and others were in Jonesboro hosting a news conference on stalking. January is Stalking Awareness Month and Union County prosecutor and law enforcement officials wanted to educate the public.

"We hope as the numbers go up and more people are aware of what stalking is, that the rate for prosecution will also go up," Van Abbema said.

While stalking is a crime in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, many victims and criminal justice professionals underestimate its seriousness and impact, Union County State's Attorney Tyler R. Edmonds said this past week.

In Illlinois, stalking is a Class 4 Felony.

Van Abbema talked about the various tools available for people who feel they are being harassed by stalking, such as the court-ordered Stalking No Contact Order and the Victims' Economic Security and Safety Act, which allows employees who are victims of domestic and sexual assault up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a given year to deal with those issues.

The Stalking No Contact Order — which is similar to a Personal Protection Order or restraining order — is a court order in which a judge orders that the person stalking you to stay away from you and your home or job or from contacting you via social media, the telephone or letters or even a third party, according to The Women's Center.

A SNCO can be had on an emergency basis, from 14 to 21 days, but the recipient can request one that could be granted for up to two years. There is no cost to request or receive a SNCO and a lawyer is not required to file one, according to The Women's Center.

On average, The Women's Center handles about two cases involving stalking each month, Van Abbema said.

The Women's Center is one of the places that investigators, like those in Union County, refer people to who have been affected by stalking and domestic violence and sexual assault.

Edmonds said his office handles a "handful" of cases each year.

Nationally, some 3.4 million victims are impacted in a year, Edmonds said in a recent news release.

The presenters noted that stalking is not a single, easily identifiable crime, but a series of acts — a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause that person fear. They advised those who feel they may be in such a situation to document, or log those instances and report them.

Stalking may take many forms, such as assaults; threats; vandalism; burglary; animal abuse; or unwanted cards, calls, gifts or visits. In some instances, stalkers track an individual's movements through the use of technology such as computers, GPS devices and hidden cameras.

Stalking knows no age, or other demographic boundary, Anna Police Chief Michael Hunter said.

Many might not recognize stalking for what it is, authorities said. They might feel bothered by unwanted gifts, phone calls and visits to work and home, but might not associate that with stalking behavior.

In fact, authorities say two or more of these types of behaviors could be a sign of stalking and those impacted by it should alert authorities, sooner than later.

One thing that Van Abbema said she was proud of was her work helping a client enact a piece of law that demands that employers give people dealing with domestic abuse and stalking issues time to deal with that concern, by keeping court appointments, for instance, she said.

Illinois is among a handful of state that supports the Victims' Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA); VESSA allows a person who is a victim of domestic or sexual violence, or whose family or household member who is impacted, to take unpaid leave for reasons related to those situations.

"She felt it was very empowering," Van Abbema said of the woman with whom she worked.

stephanie.esters@thesouthern.com

618-351-5805

On Twitter: @scribeest

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Reporter

Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Jackson and Union counties.

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