Fighting Back Against Abuse With GPS

Tracking device provides a new way to fight domestic violence.

May 17, 2009, 10:24 PM

May 18, 2009 — -- There is a new weapon being used in the fight against stalking and domestic abuse. Global Positioning System technology is an invaluable tool for navigation, and recently it's provided a different kind of peace of mind for victims of stalking or abuse.

At least 13 states have enacted laws permitting judges to place GPS bracelets on domestic abuse offenders, allowing police to track their movements and respond if they approach their former victims.

Julie, whose name has been changed for this story, says a court ordered GPS receiver allowed her to live a normal life, free from her abusive ex-husband.

Julie was married for 18 years to an abusive husband who hid several guns in their home. His first punch came only six months into the marriage.

"It was a lot of verbal abuse," Julie said. "Screaming and names, four letter words. He would apologize and promise not to do it again. And I loved him. I wanted to believe him."

But the abuse continued, and when she filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order in 2006, her husband violated it.

He attacked Julie and their son in front of other parents and kids at a school bus pick-up line in front of the her son's school.

"My son was screaming and crying," Julie said. "And I was just pleading with him, 'Please, please stop, you're hurting him. You're hurting him. Put him down. Put him down.' … And my son kicked him. And he eventually hit him in the head and got away. … I knew my son was safe in the school, so I ran in the opposite direction knowing that he would follow me and hit me."

As part of a guilty plea following the attack, Julie's ex-husband was ordered to wear a GPS tracking device to monitor his movements. GPS uses satellites orbiting Earth to pinpoint a receiver's exact location. If he violated the restraining order and approached the home or school, the police and Julie would get a call.

Knowing the GPS was in place alleviated some of Julie's fear that he might harm her family again. For the first time in years, Julie didn't have to keep an alarm on or barricade the doors.

"It was just a freedom that most people enjoy and take for granted," Julie said. "It was just joyful."

But this freedom was cut short. "It was 15 wonderful days," Julie explained. "And then he took it off."

After he removed the GPS with bolt cutters, her ex-husband went on the run for eight months until the law caught up with him and he was sent to jail.

At least 13 states have laws enabling judges to order the GPS tracking bracelets, and according to Colorado Electronic Monitoring Resource Center, as many as 5,000 of the devices are being tracked across the United States.

In some places, a person found guilty of abuse has to pay for the cost of the bracelet, but other jurisdictions have decided the system is too expensive.

Some, like Alexis Moore, think the benefits of GPS far outweigh their cost. Moore said GPS would have helped her track her ex's movements after she got a restraining order against him.

"Those few seconds mean a person's life, so why it's not available in all 50 states I'll never know," Moore said.

As head of the victims' advocacy group "Survivors in Action," Moore is lobbying for a GPS law in California.

"GPS has offered new hope for me and millions of victims because we know now there will be more out there than just a piece of paper," Moore said.

GPS a False Sense of Security?

Although GPS is a promising solution for victims of stalking or domestic violence, some advocates for domestic violence victims think the tracking technology shouldn't be a priority.

"If we hand them out in every case, law enforcement isn't going to be able to deliver the kind of protection that victims need," Deborah Epstein of Domestic Violence Clinic at Georgetown University said "and we run the risk of lulling victims into a false sense of security, they think my abusive partner has a monitoring bracelet on, I'm safe."

Still, Julie firmly believes her ex-husband deserves to have his every move watched.

"I've left instructions on what's important to me, and the children know what I want them to do if I'm not here" Julie said. "If I die."

Julie worries "that if he doesn't have the GPS on, I won't know, I won't have the time. It won't be enough for the alarm to go off or the dog to bark for me or the children to get away."

Her ex-husband is up for parole in September. If he gets out, she hopes he'll be wearing a bracelet.

Click here for a map of states that have passed GPS legislation.

Click here for more information on restraining orders.

Click here to connect with Survivors in Action.

Contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

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