When Koa’s boyfriend strangled her in 2002, she managed to escape by jumping out of a second-floor window. At the time, the two had been dating for about three years. The fall ended up breaking her ankle, but Koa was able to run to her neighbors and call 911. “If my will to live hadn’t outweighed his will to kill me, I would have been dead,” she says.
Koa and her boyfriend stayed together for several years after the assault; they lived togetherand had a child. Throughout the relationship, Koa says, the abuse continued. In 2006, as she was preparing to spend Christmas with their baby daughter and her parents, she looked up and took in the holes all over her house, from where her boyfriend had punched the walls. That’s when she decided to leave.
It took a few more years for the couple to split. They finally did so in 2009 – but that wasn’t the end of their story. Koa’s ex has spent the last 11 years stalking her and their daughter, now a teenager. Over that time, Koa, now 44, has taken out multiple protective orders against her ex, has moved between four US states and even had her identity legally changed with the help of a domestic violence services program about a decade ago. The Guardian reviewed police reports and citations, court transcripts, disability findings, emails, text messages and audio recordings to verify Koa’s account of her relationship and the aftermath, and is using a pseudonym to protect the subject’s privacy.
She has considered leaving the country, but hasn’t wanted to – the US is her home. “I honestly do not remember if he has [even] been penalized on paper,” Koa says, for violating protective orders.
The abuse she suffered during and after their relationship has left Koa with physical and mental disabilities, including a head injury, which has resulted in persistent memory problems, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a type of PTSD that comes from enduring long-term trauma. She suffers from episodes in which she loses consciousness due to anxiety, according to documents the Guardian reviewed related to her disability claims. The documents directly tie her health problems to her ex’s abuse, specifically noting his 2002 assault.
Eleven years is a long time to stalk someone. Koa says the justice system has done little to protect her, and sometimes has put her further in harm’s way. Koa’s case may sound extreme, but the circumstances that led to it – the repeated failures of the criminal justice and family court systems, technically in place for her safety – are common. Years of seeking protection from these and social services have left Koa having to fight for herself and her daughter without the support she needs to fully extricate herself from her abuser.
Koa recalls calling the police after multiple other instances of her ex becoming violent with her before the couple split up – which usually resulted in a verbal warning or a citation. Since he assaulted her in 2002, Koa’s ex has spent brief periods in jail and, Koa says, a psychiatric hospital, but has always gotten out and been able to find her. The last time Koa’s ex physically assaulted her, in 2009, he punched and attempted to strangle her, according to a letter from the shelter where Koa stayed after the attack.
In the new life that Koa has tried to build – away from her abusive ex – he has appeared through some combination of bureaucratic mismanagement and law enforcement officers failing to abide by practices meant to safeguard survivors of intimate partner violence. Several years ago, a law enforcement officer revealed Koa’s changed identity and address to her ex, after the guardian ad litem – the court-appointed person who is meant to represent a child’s best interests – assigned to their child’s visitation case recommended a wellbeing check. This compromise of privacy was both a flaw in the system intended to protect her and simply the way things work sometimes when the guardians of that system don’t prioritize victim safety. It ultimately helped Koa’s ex remain on her trail.
When the coronavirus outbreak hit the US, Koa noticed she felt safer than she had in years.
Her ex hadn’t contacted her in quite some time. It had been more than a year since she’d moved from the east coast to Hawaii, a decent amount of time for someone used to relocating roughly every year and a half to keep her location secret.
Travel restrictions and lockdown procedures meant Koa’s ex wouldn’t necessarily be traveling anytime soon. And although she dislikes having to wear a mask in public, Koa realized she appreciates the anonymity it’s provided. “Nobody can recognize me,” she says. “I am scared for when they say ‘OK, you don’t have to wear a mask any more.’”
This relative feeling of security disappeared when Koa got a text from an unfamiliar number in April. The text, which has been reviewed by the Guardian, contained Koa’s home address at the time, nothing else. She couldn’t verify who sent it, but she believes it was her ex.
Around the same time, Koa says she received texts from another unfamiliar number. The sender identified as Betty, which Koa knew to be the name of the woman her ex married sometime after they broke up. (The name has been changed to protect the subject’s identity.) One of the texts contained a callback number. When Koa tried the number, Betty answered, but denied sending her any text messages. The women are no longer in contact, but Koa says Betty told her that her marriage had also turned abusive, and she believed Koa’s ex was headed to Hawaii in May.
The pandemic then became more of an obstacle than a protection. Courthouses’ operations were limited, and advocates Koa had previously been speaking to had gone silent, probably overwhelmed responding to situations arising from the pandemic. All Koa could do was relocate again in mid-April, to a place she describes as “very private” but temporary. She’s tired of running, but with the pandemic straining legal and advocacy resources, she feels trapped, unable to ever truly let her guard down.
Reports of intimate partner violence have surged across the globe since March – but stories of escalating abuse tend to focus on people who live with their abusers, not those who have escaped. TK Logan, a behavioral scientist at the University of Kentucky who studies stalking, says abusers are probably still stalking their exes during the pandemic, even if this behavior hasn’t been formally studied yet.
“We’re hearing about increased calls about partner abuse,” Logan says, but metrics that track stalking are more nuanced, and therefore not as readily available – many studies on stalking require survey respondents to answer questions, rather than rely on reported numbers from agencies. Studies Logan has conducted in the past found that “about half of abusers stalked after a protective order”.
Over the years, Koa has taken out three protective orders against her ex, all in the east coast state where her parents lived, and where she and her ex lived at the time of his 2002 assault. (She feared filing orders in other states, where she had “no family or support system”, would give away her location.) Although the orders specified no contact with the victim, her ex was able to either call her from jail or have a friend contact her on his behalf.
After the last protective order in 2011, Koa says her ex “built a small army” of people to harass her online; for months, accounts she didn’t recognize posted comments questioning the credibility of her claims about her ex’s abuse and threatening physical violence.
According to Logan, “spreading rumors [that] can damage reputation” is a typical stalking behavior. So is creating financial problems for the victim (Koa’s ex has only paid a fraction of his court-mandated child support) and hacking their social media accounts. Though only 11% of stalking victims said they were stalked for five or more years, per US Bureau of Justice statistics, Logan says former intimate partners who were abusive tend to stalk their victims longer than stalkers who did not have intimate relationships with their victims.
Approximately one in six women in the US are stalked in a year, according to the Stalking Prevention, Awareness, and Resource Center (Sparc). Of those women, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says 66% are stalked by current or former intimate partners.
Meanwhile, pandemic conditions can exacerbate prior stalking behaviors, says Jennifer Landhuis, the director of Sparc in Washington DC. Victims have less access to protective factors, such as jobs and services, and abusers may have more time to “gather information” on their ex-partners, Landhuis adds.
Landhuis says Sparc recommends victims seek out local service providers, like shelters, and “consider reporting the [stalking] behavior to law enforcement”.
But Koa has found that this advice hasn’t always applied to her. In April, after receiving the anonymous text message containing her home address, Koa says a local domestic violence shelter turned her away because she didn’t have hard proof that her ex was nearby. Instead, the shelter suggested Koa call the police if her ex showed up at her home. (An administrator for the shelter, responding to a request for comment, said they operate as an “emergency shelter” and couldn’t discuss particular cases.)
When Koa called the local police department to report that she believed her ex had contacted her, however, an officer notified Koa’s ex of the report – an act she feared would anger her ex, putting her in more danger. She called the police department back and spoke to a lieutenant, intending to explain why this was a potential problem. The lieutenant insisted on the merits of police calling her abuser to tell him to leave her alone. (The Guardian has verified Koa’s account of this conversation with an audio recording of the call.)
“How will this guy stop if he never knows you’re making a complaint against him?” the lieutenant can be heard asking Koa on the call.
Koa said her goal was not to put law enforcement in touch with her ex. “I’m just trying to make a paper trail,” she said. “So that when he does get me, then people know who to look at.”
The lieutenant told Koa that it was “normal protocol” to contact the subject of police reports. When Koa asked to see the department’s policies that state this protocol, the lieutenant told her, “You’ll just have to take my word for it.”
Speaking to the Guardian for comment, a different lieutenant from Koa’s local police department said, “Depending on what type of case is reported, contact may be made with the suspect for follow-up.”
Judge Elizabeth Hines, who presides over a domestic violence court in Ann Arbor, Michigan, notes that “instantly responding” to abusers who begin stalking their exes has been effective in stopping those behaviors. “No matter how small” the protective order violation is, Hines says it is crucial for offenders to hear from law enforcement, which sends the message that more serious violations can result in jail time.
This strategy, however, puts tremendous pressure on stalking survivors to report the harassment to law enforcement – whom they may not trust for various reasons. It also assumes victims can identify intimate partner violence stalking at its outset.
For years, Koa saw herself first as a survivor of assault, then a victim of the criminal justice system that failed to protect her; only after that did she consider herself a domestic violence survivor. “I had no idea that I was in a domestic violence relationship until 2009,” she says.
Today, it has been years since Koa has directly spoken with her ex. She says she “has no clue” as to whether he traveled to Hawaii in May or not – though she believes he’s still on the mainland. But knowing that the police have been in touch with him, she has prepared herself for another encounter – and the sense of safety she once felt has been slipping away.
Over the course of several conversations, Koa spoke about the ways in which the pandemic could make things harder for her next time there is word from her ex. She and her daughter are considering moving abroad – but leaving the US could be nearly impossible under current international travel restrictions.
Still, Koa hopes to change her circumstances. She says she is “moving forward” with a complaint against the guardian ad litem who requested the wellbeing check that resulted in Koa’s personal information being shared with her ex several years ago. She is also working on finding someone to help investigate her child support and custody case from 2008, which she says was “mishandled”.
“I’m not letting this define me,” says Koa.
For now, fighting for freedom from her abuser has become a part of her daily life. Between family courts failing to hold her ex accountable, law enforcement officers revealing her location to her ex and domestic violence services being unable to accommodate her, protecting herself has become almost a full-time job.
It’s a job Koa has gotten very good at. Legal documents, letters from shelters and audio recordings of phone calls create a detailed paper trail of her search for closure, and tell a story of loopholes and close calls that end with Koa relying almost entirely on her own survival instincts for safety. She’s been her own best means for survival so far.