Western Mass News Investigates: Do today’s laws protect cybersta - Western Mass News - WGGB/WSHM

Western Mass News Investigates: Do today’s laws protect cyberstalking victims?

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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) -

Cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram - the ways to connect are seemingly endless.  However, when your very survival depends on hiding from a certain person, where do you turn?

Western Mass News investigated the ways abusers use technology to control, intimidate, and stalk and whether the laws are actually protecting the victims.

"This was never a space I wanted to be in," Kelley said.  We’re not using her last name to protect her identity.

It was a coworker Kelley let into her life and why wouldn't she?  Everyday, friendships are made - yet this one took a dark turn very fast.

"He decided to use technology as a weapon to harass me and to defame me," she said.

Lies spread about Kelley quickly, ruining her professional life.  Fearful of checking her inbox, terrified of the next message, Kelley at one point contemplated ending it all.

"I hit a point where I had to step in and say, ‘OK I can either walk in front of the number 66 bus in my neighborhood or I can stand up," Kelley explained.

Not knowing where to turn, Kelley finally managed to go to police.

"That was hard because even then I had to say to them, this is that person, and they were like how do we know? How do we know it's not somebody else?"

Her experiences echo a problem that's far too familiar for those working in the courtroom to prosecute domestic violence. Something so sinister like stalking, affecting 7 and a half million people every year in the U.S., can leave a survivor feeling like the world is closing in on them.

It's happening local. The Northwestern District Attorney's office, serving Franklin and Hampshire counties, sees about 1,500 domestic violence cases a year.

"It's definitely something that we're not immune from here,” said Mary Kociela, director of projects in the domestic violence and sexual assault unit, “This is a very complex situation that anyone of us could find ourselves in and any one of us would have trouble getting away from."

Eighty-nine percent of women killed in abusive situations were stalked in the 12 months prior to their death - a very real fear Kelley had.

"Everything that's written on these devices is real as if someone were to say this to you directly,” Kelley said, "This, I feel like an attacker can be everywhere."

Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Suhl explains the difficulty in prosecuting these cases.

"There’s an element which is not present in all statutes across the country which is that the defendant took an action that put the victim in imminent fear of death or bodily injury,” said Suhl, “That is often difficult to prove and that's often where we're not able to go forward with a felony stalking charge."

That could mean the difference between a survivor of domestic violence seeing their abuser go to prison or walking free.

"Someone could be convicted of stalking and go to a state prison for five years or they could go to prison for zero days and get probation," Suhl said.

Fear is hard to explain to a jury, let alone a judge. Kelley was able to finally go to police and get a restraining order. Her victory, though, was painfully short-lived.

"They vacated the restraining order because they didn't have enough evidence to say, OK this email, this text message, this instance, is directly related to that person," Kelley said.

"We know abusers don't give up that easily," said Erica Olsen, deputy director of the Safety Net Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Olsen is a nationally-known advocate fighting against domestic violence.  Kelley does a lot of outreach with the group as well.

The pair of women are just some of many others determined to not let abusers win - traveling the country to teach survivors, police, prosecutors and advocates the life-saving tools behind technology as well.

“It's important that we recognize that technology is an incredible tool for survivors to use to help maintain their safety and we encourage survivors to use technology, to understand technology better," Olsen said.

That's exactly what Kelley has done - reclaiming her life among the millions who've never experienced their technology being used as a means of torture against them.  She's getting her PhD in information security, taking the very tool that once terrified her, and embracing it.

"I just decided that either I could allow him and his power to control my life and his words to control my life or I can step out and say there's something about the system that's broken,” Kelley said, "We have important changes that need to be done."

Advocates say their best advice is to trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is. Tell coworkers, friends and police about your fears, and try to log threats, messages or any other contact your abuser makes against you, that can make any impending court case much easier to prosecute.

Lastly, if you or someone you know is being stalked or abused, here are some organizations that can help:

Meantime, by next May, Kelley expects to graduate with her PhD from Purdue University and continue her work helping others escape the grips of stalking.

Copyright 2015 Western Mass News (Meredith Corporation).  All rights reserved.

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