Interview with Polly Poskin, Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault


Polly Poskin, Executive Director of ICASA, shows an audience a rape kit. Photography by: José Moré/Chicago News Cooperative

Polly Poskin, Executive Director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, took some time to speak with me about her work to end sexual violence in Illinois, the progress on there on the rape kit backlog and the culture of violence against women. Her words were incredibly informed and powerful and this transcript hardly seems to do them justice. We are pleased to be sharing this interview with you today.

Sarah Tofte: Polly, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today. Let’s talk a bit about how you got interested in working on violence against women issues.

Polly Poskin: In college, I focused on women’s history for my graduate degree. That was a time when we were learning about the women’s movement. So much of the focus was improving access to education, improving employment opportunities and expanding daycare. And we got into reproductive rights. Our women’s movement focused on educational opportunities for women, equal pay, child-bearing and child-caring issues and the right of a woman to control her body. We never talked about domestic violence and rape. I wasn’t aware of those issues in 1970.

ST: So, when did violence against women come into your work?

PP: I remember the New York Radical Feminists held a “Speak Out” on rape in New York City in 1971. I came to understand that if women were to gain equality and be free to move about safely in this culture, we were going to have to have sexual safety. If women were to feel liberated, they needed to be safe. And I realized that if we don’t end violence in women’s lives, women were never going to be safe, free and even remotely equal to men in all the areas of life that we might like to pursue.

ST: Once you decided to commit yourself to this work, where did you go?

PP: The opportunities were not huge. There were rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters, but there was no funding for them. Then, in 1980, President Reagan signed into law the rape crisis services and rape prevention program that contained federal funds designated for rape crisis centers. That helped open up the field for more people to be employed, including me.

ST: Tell me about the early days of your work on sexual violence. What were the challenges?

PP: Well, if we didn’t have bona fide physical evidence that could somehow substantiate the woman’s report of rape, then there was going to be no support for–and no response to–a rape victim by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. In the early days of my work, many of the women coming forward were sexually abused as children or as young teenagers and, now, decades later, were coming forward to get help from us and to tell us what had happened to them. As there became more permission for women to report rape and as women realized they could get the support of victim advocates and have some community back-up, more women came forward in the immediate moments after a rape. There was growing focus on what physical evidence existed in order to go forward with a case. Women began to believe they could report a rape right after it happened when there would still be physical evidence that could be used at trial.

ST: I have been doing some research lately on the origins of rape kit examinations in the United States and I learned that Illinois is considered the birthplace of the rape kit. Was it around this time that the rape kit started to emerge as a good law enforcement tool?

PP: A victim’s rights advocate helped develop the kit with a detective in or around 1975-1976. Before the rape kit existed, there was very little physical evidence collected from rape cases—or, if it was collected, it was not always as useful as it needed to be. There were storage issues and contamination issues and inconsistency in analysis. It was a bit of a mess.

The importance of the rape kit rose as reporting rates increased and more victims came forward right after a rape occurred. In the mid 80s, an investigative reporter in Chicago discovered that police were hoarding rape kits in the trunks of police officers’ cars. The kits never even made it to the police station. These kits had been collected and because there was never any pursuit of the investigation, the officers never took the kits to the station or the lab. That story opened the floodgates to talk about the significance of rape kits, the lack of law enforcement compliance in delivering the kits to the lab and the role of state’s attorneys’ offices who too infrequently requested lab results from the kits.

Since the first rape kit was introduced, we have constantly made tweaks and improvements as our knowledge base increases about what works and what doesn’t for victims and for evidentiary value. We worked hard to improve the emergency room response by doing training with hospitals and law enforcement. We tried to bridge the relationship between cops and hospitals so they would communicate better with one another.

ST: Why was the forensic piece so important to get right?

PP: As to the crime of rape, our society does not believe women simply based on their word. So, especially in those years before the rape laws were changed, we really, really needed corroborating physical evidence in order to get a prosecutor to take the case. We needed to have evidence to substantiate the woman’s testimony of what happened to her because, unfortunately, her word alone was not enough. The reality was we needed evidence to bolster a woman’s credibility that she was telling the truth about the rape. Quite honestly, so much of making a criminal case depended on the emergency room personnel who documented the victim’s condition when she came in—the bruises, the broken bones. All of this was in addition to the rape kit collection, and together, it lent credibility to the woman’s story. And in cases when a victim was afraid to tell anyone about the abuse, effective and compassionate care in the emergency room helped to encourage the victim to report the crime. Forensic evidence also made it more difficult for the police to deny that the abuse occurred.

ST: I recently read that of the 4,100 untested rape kits in Illinois police storage facilities, the oldest one was from 1978. Would you talk about the difference between what a woman reporting in 1978 and having a rape kit collected would experience and what a woman today experiences?

PP: In 1978, a victim would be fortunate if she got herself to an emergency room. It wasn’t as widely known that a woman could get help, so it was even more rare then for a woman to come forward to report the crime or get medical help. The process of the rape kit exam was, and continues to be, a pretty arduous experience, although that has certainly improved through sexual assault nurse examiners who are trained to do the exam as efficiently and compassionately as possible. Thirty years ago, many women went to the ER to get care because of a fear of pregnancy and many of them didn’t even necessarily want to report rape to police. The cultural bias against rape victims told a victim that she was probably not going to get the support she needed and that the assailant would never be apprehended. There was very little incentive to report rape. A woman went to ERs for care, not for evidence collection, so the woman getting a rape kit collected in 1978 was especially brave.

Also, back in 1978, we didn’t have as much information about the prevalence of rape. There was no data. It wasn’t until Illinois required emergency rooms to report to law enforcement that a victim had presented to the hospital for a rape (leaving out the victim’s name or address). And then we required law enforcement to publicly report the number of rapes reported to them. In areas where law enforcement developed a good relationship with emergency rooms, police would start to come to the emergency room to gather information from the victim and about the assailant. It gave police the opportunity to witness firsthand the severity of the assault.  Some police continued to use the ER visit as a time to determine if they believed the victim. It was so important as this practice developed to make certain that victim advocates were present to serve as a buffer of protection for the victim and work with law enforcement and emergency room personnel on her behalf.

Back in 1978, the definition of rape was very narrow. The victim had to be 14 or older, could not be the assailant’s spouse and the sex had to be sexual penetration by force. This narrow definition of rape in the law told the victim that if she did not meet the law’s definition of rape, then she was not a rape victim.

As we started to get some data on the prevalence of rape and how many different types of rape that were beyond the law’s definition of rape, we started to focus on how to get the law to better address the broad spectrum of rape.

ST: How do you think it helped to have an improved emergency room response?

PP: It helped get victims the care they needed to put their life back together again. It is my belief that victims need an immediate sense of recovery in order to reestablish their lives. I think that when we get an institution to respond well to the crime of rape, it’s useful in responding to the victim, but it also helps to address the impact of the crime on the community and helps preserve the physical and emotional integrity of the victim. And we cannot underestimate the role the advocate plays at the emergency room as she brings compassion and care to the victim during what are probably some of the worst moments of her life.

ST: And how has this improved training empowered victims?

PP: Hospitals and law enforcement now know that rape victims get to determine their care and the direction that care takes and that victims are free to determine how much care they want. This lets victims know that they are taking control of their lives and the process following rape; they are then better prepared to be a witness and better prepared to be a critical part of the criminal case. When professional care improves, victims want to be more engaged in the system.

ST: There are so many aspects to an improved criminal justice response. Let’s talk for a moment specifically about DNA and how that is useful in moving more cases forward.

PP: We think of DNA as being most useful when the assailant is a stranger, at least in terms of solving that individual case. And that is probably true. But I think that if you are not testing all rape kits–even in non-stranger cases–and not gathering the evidence that those kits provide, then you are dismissing what can be the most critical factor in the jury’s opinion. The more physical evidence and scientific evidence you provide them, the more useful it is. And it is incredibly helpful in interrupting the rape from occurring again, especially since serial rapists are often non-stranger rapists as well as stranger rapists. So I think it’s essential that we make sure that we are using all the tools we have to hold offenders accountable and DNA is a huge part in doing so.

I believe Illinois is making huge strides in terms of rape kit testing—and a lot of those strides happened because of the courage of victims to come forward and say, “I don’t think my rape kit was tested.” Everyone has to follow the law and we have a new law that says we need to collect rape kit evidence and that the evidence will be tested. You cannot have untested or unaccounted rape kits anymore in this state without now breaking the law. So, by mandating by law that every rape kit is tested, it sends the message that rape kit testing is serious—so serious there is a law mandating it—and that we take rape seriously. It is that kind of adherence to the law that creates a cultural understanding that this is serious, violent behavior and we are taking it seriously and we will handle testing with the utmost responsibility.

When people see that discretionary decisions are being made case by case regarding rape kit testing, or when testing is based on an individual police officer’s subjective beliefs about the case, then people see that it’s arbitrary, that it isn’t law at all, it’s based on whoever is in charge of the particular case or incident. That is a message to rape victims that, “this is not going to go well for me if I report. It’s going to be arbitrary about whether I am believed or not and I don’t know if reporting is worth it.” Institutions have a responsibility to provide standardization, uniformity, fairness and consistency in their responsibilities and once that is undermined and certain people are given passes and excuses, faith in those institutions is diminished.

ST: Let’s go back to the rape kit backlog. Talk to me about the latest developments in Illinois.

PP: There was a report just released by the Illinois State Police that found 4,100 untested kits inventoried in 379 different law enforcement agencies. Now that we have inventoried these kits, we know what we are dealing with in terms of our rape kit backlog. The best that is going to come out of this is that we will all collaborate and come to a common understanding that the implementation of law leads to successful investigations, increased safety of communities and hopefully justice for the victim.  We will start to see the value of stretching ourselves to create laws and implement laws that bring about justice and hopefully the prevention of rape.

I would like to think that the effort to end the rape kit backlog will result in a victim knowing that she or he will be believed and there is a system in place that will do its very best to bring justice to her or him. If, as a culture, we can ensure our citizens that if you reach out for help, you will be believed that you need help, and if we say to an assailant that they will be held accountable for violating someone’s sense of sexual safety, we will be more trusting of one another and our institutions.  Maybe then, we can live in community.

ST: What will it take to dramatically reduce—it not end altogether—sexual violence in this country?

PP: We certainly need increased funding, increased resources and laws requiring accountability, but that alone does not change a culture. It may keep us fortified with the resources that we need to be safe, but ending sexual violence is really dependent on human beings regarding one another as equals. Someone I regard as my equal I do not harm. If we had the practice of equality, we would see the end of rape. If we can move toward equality, we will start to see a decrease in rape.  We will see an increase in believing the victim and arresting the assailant and pursuing justice.  That practice brings dignity and rights back to women.

ST: What sticks with you the most about this work?

PP: I think a lot about the courage it takes to report rape. I think everyday about the victims who live with rape as a reference point in their lives. That is why I hold such deep respect and love for any woman under any circumstances who comes forward to report she was raped. Victims will live with the memory of rape, those who tell someone and are believed also build the positive memory of coming forward to seek support. We all must understand the impact of rape on an individual’s life and the significance that first responders have on a victim’s recovery.

Something I think about is how wonderful it would be to run after sundown, alone, during what would–I imagine—be a very meditative practice. But I don’t do it. And there is only one reason I don’t run after dark and that is the fear of rape. I see men after dark, running, in that same beautiful park and I would imagine it would feel serene and uplifting, but I don’t feel safe doing that. I want to live in a world where it is just as safe for a woman as a man to run after dark.

Wouldn’t it be lovely to know that whomever you meet, they would take care of you? That we would protect one another? Safety and freedom are integral, and dependent on one another.

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