LISLE – During a presentation, Amy Leisten, of the Family Shelter Service of Metropolitan Family Services of DuPage, showed a drawing of a cat on a dry erase board on the projection screen.
"It's a really adorable cat," said Leisten, prevention educator at the Wheaton-based organization, as she addressed an audience that gathered Feb. 13 at Benedictine University in Lisle. And to anyone walking past that small board, which was once hung on the door of a dorm room, it's just that – a "cute cat."
"But if I were to give you context around this image, you would see it differently," Leisten said.
The picture, she explained, was a "calling card" left by a former dating partner, and for the intended individual, it elicited fear. That former dating partner "had access to their dorm," she said. "They had access to the place where they lived, and they were able to leave a message. They now know that it means that person is close by."
That's the thing about stalking, Leisten said. "Without context, these acts of stalking might potentially seem loving, caring or a form of romance," she said, including this cartoon outline of a black cat. "We don't have this context to really put the fear around it."
Leisten was one of many panelists who spoke at Talking About Stalking. The event, which was moderated by DuPage County Judge Ann Celine Walsh, aimed to open up the conversation on stalking, recognize the signs of a stalker and further build a bridge of support with local officials, law enforcement and advocates.
The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey reported that one in six women and one in 17 men have experienced stalking in their lifetimes. Leisten defined stalking as "a pattern of behavior that's directed at a specific person that causes a reasonable person to feel fear."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these behaviors can appear in the following forms: threatening phone calls, text messages, spying, showing up at the victim's home or workplace or leaving unwanted gifts.
"Stalking has evolved from the concept of physical surveillance and harassment to cyberstalking on the internet and cellphones, and with the use of social media," Walsh said. "It can be very complex. It's still evolving with the advancement in technology."
Though stalking is a crime in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, "it was not illegal until 1990," said Cortney Klein, an advocate at the YMCA Metropolitan Chicago.
California was the first state in the country to pass the anti-stalking law, reported the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. The law came after the death of actress and model Rebecca Schaeffer. Schaeffer was killed by Robert John Bardo, a fan who stalked her for nearly three years.
Mike Drugan, director of mental health services at the DuPage County Sheriff's Office, said that stalking is usually not an isolated event. In fact, nearly one-third of stalkers have stalked before, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Drugan went on to name isolation, interference and life invasion as the three components of stalking. He added that stalking can often escalate and lead to property damage, physical violence including sexual assault, or even murder.
Like Leisten, Drugan stressed the importance of understanding context and intent. Because the act of stalking can go unseen, they emphasized the need to ask questions as a way to determine that pattern of behavior.
"Have you recently ended a relationship?" is just one question that can offer insight, Leisten said. The National Center for Victims of Crime also reported 61% of women and 44% of men are stalked by a current or former intimate partner.
Leisten added that other questions such as "what does this act mean to you?" and "how has this behavior escalated?" also could be helpful indicators.
Like the event's straightforward name, talking about stalking is really about educating. That was the hope, the goal that Leisten, Drugan and others carried with them.
Drugan pointed to a list of words that are used to cast a shadow of doubt when it comes to stalking. He put a line through "unrequited love," "just being awkward," "a little weird," "harmless," "romantic," and "no big deal."
"When there's smoke, there's what?" Drugan said. "There's fire. So call it what it is."