The Center for the Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior (CTPSB)
Suzanne Brown-McBride California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA)
On Saturday, September 5, 2009 the world suffered the loss of Gail Burns-Smith. Gail was the Executive Director of the Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services for many years and was one of the leading Victim Advocates in our nation.
Gail became the Executive Director of the Connecticut Sexual Assault Center of Crisis Services (CONNSACS) in 1982, where she served until her retirement in 2004. She grew the organization from a staff of just herself to 23. In 1996 she partnered with the Center for the Treatment of Problem Sexual Behavior, creating one of the first private, non-profit Victim Advocate Programs to work in collaboration with sexual offender treatment and management. This later became a national model for such programs. She also co-founded the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, a Washington, DC lobbying organization. The Alliance was instrumental in securing passage of the National Violence Against Women Act and the related funding of programs for services to victims of sexual assault and other violence. In retirement, she continued her long-time commitment to victims of violence by serving on the board of the National Crime Victim Law Institute.
Many of us have been blessed with special people in our lives – a spouse who brings out the best in us and loves us despite our shortcomings, a best friend we can count on until death, a parent who was always there when we needed them. Some of us have also been fortunate to have in our lives beacons – people who shine the light, show the way, and help us to behave in the manner they have shown. Though challenging, assertive, strong, and directed, they bring warmth and comfort to those around them. Gail Burns-Smith was such a person.
In human services and criminal justice today there are many common words we value – professionalism, career, quality, evidence-based, strategy, business, budget, growth, measurement, management, market, funder, customer, etc. Most of these concepts are important, to be sure, while others are…well, less so. Gail was always someone who understood that many of these concepts are important, but always skillfully applied the ones truly relevant to better the life of victims and survivors.
There is another set of words we too rarely hear today. These better describe Gail’s life as a Victim Advocate – courage, honesty, intelligence, commitment, coherence, honor, passion and belief in a cause, constancy, AND openness to change when required,
In the over 20 years we knew Gail, she always brought an incredible passion to her work. Her commitment was always to “the cause”, not to the job. She always knew – and lived – that the reason for our work existence is nothing more, and nothing less, than the clients whom we serve. She never had a “job”. She spent her working life, and all the hours before and after the so-called workday, in the relentless pursuit of equality and justice for victims of all types of abuse and violence.
In a world looking for simple answers Gail had the courage to ask what is best for the long-term, well-being and safety of victims. In a world where our politicians have searched for a one-size fits all – and often demeaning response – to those who perpetrate sexual violence, Gail had the intelligence, the courage, and the honor to ask whether these responses just feel good, or are actually good for victims. Long ago, she realized that if she cared for those who have been victimized, she had to search for answers that may not always seem intuitive and may not always be the ones she personally would like best. In ways we have rarely, if ever, seen equaled, Gail has been both a passionate and indefatigable champion for the safety and rights of victims, and a clear-spoken, intelligent spokesperson for the need to treat offenders in a manner that both assures accountability for their crimes and that is humanistic and most likely to lower future sexual violence. She led a groundbreaking effort in Connecticut to have victim advocates work closely with offender treatment providers and criminal justice supervisors in the management of sexual offenders.
There are two statements Gail often made that we carry with us always.
One is that the role of advocacy is to keep others honest. She understood that, by definition, service providers can easily fall prey to self-interest and blindness – that the desire to exist can so easily overtake the need to assure there is a reason to exist. Gail often proclaimed, typically in the middle of one of our more prolonged debates of an issue, that “By God” she was there to keep the debate honest and to keep us honest!!
The other beautifully simple, yet incredibly powerful statement Gail often made is that there is always a need to shine the light on what is happening. Whether it is the machinations of politics, the inherent sexism that plagues many of our court systems and indeed our country, the self-interest that can sideline human service and criminal justice agencies, or at times simply the laziness or lack of knowledge that can keep one from doing what is right for victims, Gail always had both the integrity and the courage to shine the light on such issues – knowing that change occurs more quickly when such problems are exposed.
And yet, for so much of the time, Gail retained her optimism, her belief that things can be better for victims, for women, and for children. In the face of often incredible odds, she helped to create change for which every woman – and every man – in this country can be grateful.
We are grateful that Gail has been one of the beacons in our lives. We are grateful that we were able to count her as our friend for so many years, and we are profoundly grateful that fortune smiled and allowed so many of our colleagues to share many years of their professional lives with a colleague who – by virtue of her constancy, coherence, courage, commitment, and caring – made us all better providers and, indeed, better people.
Because of Gail’s fearless and persistent advocacy, every single rape crisis program in the nation has become the beneficiary of funding from the Violence Against Women Act. She was a mentor and example to countless advocates across nation who were informed by her vision and inspired by her courage. She challenged us to think harder, do better, and to speak up.
We will miss Gail for the rest of our lives and we will mourn her loss for a very long time. But, we celebrate all that she accomplished and the many ways she made our country safer for those who experienced, or were at risk of experiencing, sexual violence.
[Back to Top]