Maureen Wishkoski is a morning person. Wishkoski is the court advocate manager at the Women’s and Children’s Alliance in Boise. Most days she gets up before 6:00 a.m. and heads to the Ada County Courthouse, where she meets with clients in need of legal help.
Some of her clients are looking for relief from stalking, a crime that she says can have serious mental and emotional impacts. According to the national Stalking Resource Center, 7.5 million people are stalked across the country every year.
“Individuals report being terrified on a daily basis and kept from going about their everyday lives," says Wishkoski. "So individuals that are trying to get to work, they’re trying to take their kids to the park, they’re trying to go back to school or go to school to get their degree – and they have to worry every time they go out their door or every time they get out of the car.”
Often, she can guide her clients – usually women – to legal avenues that will keep them safe from their stalker. One of the options is to petition for a civil protection order. Protection orders can limit the kind of contact abusers are allowed to have with their victim, and make it easier for police to protect the person being stalked. If a stalker violates an order – they can be arrested immediately and charged with a felony.
But Wishkoski says too often, people come to her wanting to get a protection order against an acquaintance or a complete stranger who is stalking them – and Wishkoski has to tell them they can’t get one.
“And that’s pretty frustrating because, what individuals have relayed to us is they feel like they’re using the system the way they’ve been told to use the system and it’s not helping them.”
Idaho law on civil protection orders is narrow. If a victim hasn’t been in a romantic or domestic relationship with their stalker – or isn’t related to them – a judge has to deny them the protection.
For Boise Police Department Corporal Sherri Cameron, that’s a big problem with potentially lethal consequences. Cameron is the department's domestic violence officer.
“Stalking cases are probably some of the hardest cases to put together," says Cameron, "some of the hardest cases to prove, and they are the most dangerous and detrimental to the emotional, mental and even physical well-being of the victims.”
Cameron says she gets reports of stalking every week. In cases where an order can’t be granted, she works with people like Wishkoski to make a safety plan for the victim. But Cameron says that’s really a bandaid fix, and the system needs to change.
“[A] protection order isn’t always going to help everybody stay away," says the officer. "But with that civil protection order in place, if they continue that harassing or annoying behavior, it becomes first-degree stalking instead of second.”
That’s where Idaho State Senator Grant Burgoyne comes in. The Democrat from Boise says over the last couple of years, he started hearing from victims of stalking who’ve been unable to get protection orders. He says one particular story stuck with him.
“And that’s when I began thinking," Burgoyne says, "this really may be a situation where we need the ability to go to court and get protection.”
He’s proposing a bill that would extend Idaho’s civil protection order statute to cover people who are being stalked by a stranger or acquaintance. Burgoyne – an attorney – says he’s taken into account skepticism from those concerned that a law like this could burden the legal system.
“This bill is designed to be narrow and address a problem really of law and order. We as a society invest a lot in trying to have an ordered but free society. We don’t tolerate this kind of behavior.”
One of the people ready to testify in favor of Burgoyne’s bill is Jennifer Landhuis, a consultant for the Stalking Resource Center. Landhuis says Idaho is behind the curve when it comes to protection orders. She says lawmakers may not know how often stalking is happening in the state, so education is key.
“So if they don’t understand the crime," says Landhuis. "They don’t understand how often it’s happening, and they don’t understand the impacts that it’s having on victims, it’s logical that they would think there wasn’t a need for this particular statute in place.”
Landhuis says stalkers are insidious, and protection orders won’t always work. But she says for people who can’t get this legal protection in Idaho right now, Burgoyne’s bill could help restore their faith in the system, and help them get back to their lives.
The bill was introduced in a Senate committee earlier this week. Burgoyne is optimistic the proposal will get a hearing next week.
Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill
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