Polly Poskin is the only executive director that the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault has ever known. That will change when she retires at the end of December following a 36-year career at the helm of the Springfield-based statewide organization.
“We’ve come a long way during those 36 years,” the 71-year-old Poskin said. “In 1982, it was unheard of that one day we would be able to fund rape crisis centers across the nation to the extent that we have. That expansion and the development of remarkable, positive relationships with our professional allies are the major changes I have seen in my professional lifetime.”
ICASA was known as the Illinois Coalition of Women Against Rape when Poskin was hired as the founding executive director in 1982. A federal block grant received that year for $148,899 helped fund the organization’s initial 12 rape crisis centers in Illinois. ICASA now operates 30 centers, 47 satellite offices and 24-hour hotlines with a $26 million budget, of which $24.5 million is distributed to those 77 sites, Poskin said.
“Making certain that rape victims have services 24 hours a day is the most rewarding part of my career,” Poskin said. “It takes a remarkable amount of dedication by the people who are paid to do this job and the folks who volunteer to make sure those hotlines run 24 hours a day.”
ICASA’s rape crisis centers and satellite offices assisted more than 22,000 Illinois citizens last year and its prevention education programs reached 663,481 students and citizens, according to the organization. But perhaps just as important is the work that Poskin and her colleagues have done with the 177 members of the Illinois General Assembly. The most significant lobbying effort, in Poskin’s opinion, was the major revision to the Illinois sex crimes statute that took effect in 1984.
“The revisions make them more reflective of sexual assault in terms of who are the perpetrators and who are the victims, and increase the options for the criminal justice system in charging and prosecuting these crimes,” Poskin said. “Under the law there are no age delineations as to who can be charged and tried for sexual assault crimes and there is no age limit on victims. The law also applies equally to all genders.”
Poskin is also proud of the work the coalition has done to eliminate the civil statute of limitations in both child and adult sexual assault cases and the criminal statute of limitations in child cases. She noted they are making progress on eliminating the criminal statute of limitations in adult cases. Poskin credited former Sangamon County State’s Attorney Bill Roberts as being a key player in these legislative efforts.
“Bill was a remarkable leader and mentor who helped us understand the law and how the law can change and be applicable to the prosecution of these crimes,” Poskin said. “We have developed this amazing network of allies in doing this work, including law enforcement, the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association, and others whose professions are also dedicated to addressing the crime of sexual assault.”
Roberts, who was also the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois and chief counsel for Gov. Jim Edgar, said his “dear friend and ally” Poskin is a “giant” in the field of sexual assault victims’ rights.
“We have come a long way and Polly certainly has been in the vanguard of all of this,” Roberts said. “She’s been in it for the long haul, she’s been a careful and thoughtful leader, a coalition builder, she has earned the respect of just about everyone who has ever dealt with her.”
Roberts said he worked closely with Poskin to bring sensitivity to the sexual assault response process, maintain the dignity of the victims, and bring professionalism to the handling and analysis of evidence. He said Poskin has a personality that is well-suited to the task.
“Polly is a pleasant person, she’s easy to talk to, but she is possessed of a remarkable tenacity and stamina,” Roberts said. “My golly, we’re talking more than 40 years and Polly has been in this struggle to improve conditions on a variety of levels for that whole time. There was never any question of where she stood on things.”
Poskin’s final year on the job has seen her life’s work bolstered by the international #MeToo movement, a grassroots fight against sexual assault that has achieved results by bringing the issue into every living room in America.
“It has certainly ended the debate about the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our culture,” Poskin said. “It has had a remarkable impact on our work and our legitimacy in the eyes of folks who have historically doubted the sexual victimization of these individuals. That has emboldened survivors to know that they can come forward and that they will be believed and supported.”
“The media’s responsiveness to #MeToo has been a great educational tool in helping to understand how pervasive sexual assault is and the devastating impact it has on victims,” Poskin said. “We are fortunate in our culture to have the media as both a watchdog on the truth and to make certain that there is no interference or interruption in recording those stories.”
Dealing with sexual assault day in and day out for 36 straight years is undeniably stressful and at times seems overwhelming, Poskin said. But she has always been able to look to the survivors for inspiration.
“I’m deeply grateful for what I have learned from victims in terms of courage and bravery and trust and determination to overcome the most heinous obstacle that can occur in a person’s life short of murder,” Poskin said. “This remarkable resiliency to survive, and to grapple with the long-term impact that sexual violence has had on their lives.”
Poskin’s replacement will be Carrie Ward, a 22-year ICASA veteran who will take over as executive director Jan. 1.
“ICASA has such an excellent history of good work and Polly was our founding executive director, so I’m very proud to follow her, but she left me some very big shoes to fill,” Ward said. “So it’s a particular honor for me to take this position.”
Poskin plans to remain in Springfield following her retirement, work with neighbors and organizations on the city’s residential and business climate, see her family more and do some traveling. It’s a significant change for the woman who began her career in 1977 as the director of Springfield’s Sojourn House, a battered women’s shelter, and has made combating violence against women her life’s work.
The ICASA executive director’s parting words to the citizens of Illinois are simple.
“When a person reports a rape the first response should be ‘I’m sorry,’ and the second response should be, ‘Tell me more about what happened to you,’” Poskin said.
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Incoming director has long history with ICASA
Carrie Ward has worked for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault for 22 years, the past 14 as grants director, and she will become the organization’s executive director on Jan. 1 following the retirement of founding executive director Polly Poskin.
Ward is very familiar with ICASA’s operations and its 30 rape crisis centers and 47 satellite offices.
“I want to bring the knowledge that I have of the compliance side and my experience of working directly with the rape crisis centers to the executive director position,” Ward said. “I want to be the face of ICASA, the person that represents the coalition as a whole.”
ICASA rape crisis centers provide counseling, medical advocacy and criminal justice advocacy to victims of sexual violence in Illinois communities. Staff and volunteers operate 24-hour hotlines at the local level, connecting free and confidential crisis services to survivors. It’s a mission that has a personal connection for Ward.
“I know friends, family members, co-workers and colleagues who have experienced sexual violence, so there’s always a personal element,” Ward said. “It’s not just helping people out there that I don’t know or haven’t met yet. It’s people close to me as well.”
Ward is a Jacksonville native, an Illinois College graduate, and received her master’s degree in human development counseling from the University of Illinois Springfield. Prior to joining ICASA, she worked at Rape Information and Counseling Services (now called Prairie Center Against Sexual Assault) in Springfield. Like Poskin, Ward’s professional career has been dedicated to stopping sexual violence and helping those affected by it.
“Our goal is always to end sexual violence in our lifetime,” Ward said. “We need to change the world from a public policy standpoint, provide relief for victims, and provide a criminal justice response that addresses offenders.”
“There’s more permission now, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, to have a conversation about it, for people to bring it up who may not have brought it up before,” Ward said.
ICASA coalition members are pleased with the choice for the new executive director.
“The Coalition believes Carrie is the perfect fit to help us navigate the ever-changing fiscal landscape while never losing sight of the coalition’s top priority of providing victim-centered services to sexual assault survivors,” said ICASA Convener Maritza Reyes. “We will forever be indebted to Polly’s leadership, guidance and passion the past three decades and believe Carrie is ready to continue that legacy.”
Poskin thinks she will leave ICASA in good hands on Jan. 1.
“I’m ecstatic that Carrie is ICASA’s next executive director,” Poskin said. “Working side-by-side with Carrie for the past two decades, I deeply respect Carrie’s skills and her devotion to expanding the best supportive services to rape victims.”
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December 9, 2018 at 06:15PM