Award-winning professor says communication is the key to aiding victims
by Danny Woodward
The stalker’s worst nightmare may be a soft-spoken redhead with three college degrees and two young children.
Emily Spence-Diehl, a UTA assistant professor of social work, is turning revelations from previous career stops into what she hopes will be a short future for those who would attempt violence against women.
She formerly worked at women’s centers and rape safe houses and encountered stalking victims daily. Stories of the women there turned her into one of the nation’s up-and-coming researchers on stalking.
In February, the Association for Community Organizations and Social Administration presented Dr. Spence-Diehl an Emerging Scholar Award for her “outstanding scholarly potential in an area of community practice and work.”
“Her research is groundbreaking,” said Larry Watson, an assistant dean for the UTA School of Social Work. “I think this award confirms that. She was recognized as a scholar in her field, and I think that helps the reputation of the University. Also, she’s adding so much to the knowledge base of the school.”
UTA’s School of Social Work is known for research on domestic violence, child welfare and related technologies. But Spence-Diehl, who came to the University in 2001, adds a new dimension: Before her studies, there was little credible research on stalking.
Ronna Quimby, a licensed counselor and the director of client services for the Women’s Shelter in Arlington, said the need for studies such as Spence-Diehl’s is great. One-third of the women who encounter Quimby’s care say they’ve been stalked, and the actual number may be greater since harassment isn’t always stalking in a legal sense.
“The more information we have, the better we can enforce these laws,” Quimby said. “The problem is, it’s not something you really think about unless you’re a victim.”
Blazing the trail
Spence-Diehl’s life work was born of necessity. She worried for the safety of the often-traumatized women who entered Florida International University’s Victim Advocacy Center, which she directed.
A Florida law banning stalking, enacted in 1994, was inconsistently enforced, leaving victims with shaky legal protection.
“You’re not supposed to take your work home with you, but I couldn’t help it,” Spence-Diehl said. “I didn’t know if I’d wake up the next morning and find out that someone had been killed.”
What little research she could find was scarcely research at all, “nothing more than anecdotal,” the stuff of “pop-psychology magazines.” With few articles to pore over, Spence-Diehl began documenting personal experiences of women who came to her for help, isolating trends and logging them into a database.
By 1999, she had gathered enough information for a book, Stalking: A Handbook for Victims. It has become one of the best-selling titles from Learning Publications, a press focused on violence and victimization material and marketed to academic audiences.
“I didn’t consider myself a researcher at all,” Spence-Diehl said. “I considered myself a practitioner.... I tried to find out everything I could. It just snowballed and took me with it.”
Her work wasn’t confined to the book she cranked out between semesters of doctoral study at Florida International. She also surveyed victim-assistance programs in two states and found inadequate support services, including personal counseling. She worries that efforts might be geared to justice but seldom to recovery.
She published her findings in a journal article in 2000.
“Stalking victims are just constantly barraged with things like court hearings and drastic lifestyle changes,” she said. “Some need a great deal of help, more than a general victim-assistance service package.”
Spence-Diehl uncovered something else, too, that suggested a standardized system wouldn’t work. She linked financial status with the ability to escape or recover from a stalking.
Women with even moderate resources, she discovered, have a distinct advantage because they can more easily relocate, install security devices or hire personal protection. Those who live in poverty, though, are fettered by dependence on an immobile social structure — an inflexible, minimum-wage job or reliance on nearby family for childcare or errands.
This, too: Police are less likely to respond quickly to a crime in a low-income neighborhood, she said.
Spence-Diehl hopes to expand her socioeconomic theory to see if it holds up on a larger scale. That’s her next project.
Working the puzzle
The average stalking last two years. That’s two years of hang-up phone calls, two years of slashed tires, two years of looking over your shoulder.
“It’s very frustrating for victims,” the Women’s Shelter’s Quimby said. “Clients have enough barriers to overcome to live with fear. They leave a relationship to escape the violence, and sometimes it continues even at a greater level. They’re angry, too, because they’re trying to start over and they’re the ones who have to change their lives.”
Spence-Diehl wants to smother that exhaustive threat by improving communication.
“Every time I read about a murder, they interview people who knew what was going on, but nobody was doing anything about it,” she said. “People who get only part of the story don’t see the whole problem. They’re seeing one stalking behavior at a time, but stalking is continuous and unpredictable. People don’t understand how complex stalking is.”
A victim relates part of her story to the police, to an attorney, to a counselor, to family members. But those people rarely get together to discuss what they know.
Spence-Diehl’s doctoral dissertation examined a pilot program funded by the Justice Department that tried to open lines of communication. Coordinated meetings allowed the group of would-be helpers to craft a strategy. The victims had to waive privilege laws, but they could dictate what information the social workers shared.
A logical idea, right? But it hadn’t been done before Spence-Diehl because it consumes so much money and time. Besides, she said, overloaded caseworkers seldom see the same picture victims do.
One woman under Spence-Diehl’s care was terrorized by a former partner who broke into her car only to rearrange her seat and mirror settings. Because she couldn’t prove this to police, they dismissed her claims. And if she saw her tormenter at the grocery store, who was to say that wasn’t a coincidence?
Then came the black roses, and next the shadowing everywhere she went.
“Those little things individually aren’t a big deal. Someone might try to convince people to ignore them. But those things all together are terrorizing,” Spence-Diehl said. “If there was more communication between people who know about the problem, we could better help. Everybody has a piece of the puzzle.”
In the last few years, that puzzle has become a focused picture for Spence-Diehl. She’s now able to spot patterns in stalkers’ behavior, to identify when they’re likely to become violent. However, she said, these red flags — violating restraining orders, making verbal threats, evidence of past violence — are too often ignored by social workers and criminal justice personnel.
A tangled Web
Technology has given stalking new life and two faces. They look vastly different, and Spence-Diehl can’t decide which is uglier.
Domestic violence is often associated with stalking and is more frequent among low-income populations. More cosmopolitan, higher-income stalkers rely on popular innovations such as cell phones or, worse, the find-anything Internet.
“They embrace technology and use it to terrorize their victims in a very covert and complex manner,” Spence-Diehl said. “They don’t have to work nearly as hard as they used to. They can go online and get information on anybody. It’s very difficult to disappear in this day and age because it’s very difficult to remove yourself from these search engines.”
An upcoming issue of the Journal of Technology and Human Services will include an article from Spence-Diehl about technology’s use in stalking.
One Web site she found during her research, the so-called “stalkers homepage,” offers tips on finding everything from Social Security and driver’s license numbers to recent addresses. It also links to detective agencies’ sites, so a stalker can pay $20 a month to have someone else do the dirty work.
When efforts mount to shut the page down, it just moves. The person who maintains it claims to discourage stalking. He calls himself a “personal-privacy advocate” who hopes only to illustrate how loosely secrets are guarded.
But the Internet has two faces, too.
While stalkers feast on its accessibility, those out to catch them have a new tool. Using electronic means to harass an individual is a federal crime, and technology leaves a paper trail.
“Good law-enforcement agencies are getting good at catching stalkers online,” Spence-Diehl said. “We can get the FBI in on this. And without the Internet, they wouldn’t have caught these stalkers otherwise.”
Maybe the same can be said for Emily Spence-Diehl.