Congress to Investigate Peace Corps Treatment of Sex Assault Victims

[In case you might have missed last night’s ABC News, Congress is investigating charges that as many as 1,000 former Peace Corps volunteer women were raped during their service abroad.  Many of those volunteers are charging that Peace Corps officials asked them to remain quiet and cover up:  http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/peace-corps-congress-investigate-peace-corps-treatment-sex/story?id=12777476.]  

In the wake of an ABC News “20/20” investigation, a Congressional committee announced plans for hearings on the Peace Corps’ handling of more than a thousand cases of female volunteers who were raped or sexually assaulted over the last decade.

“This is very upsetting. If these numbers are accurate this is something that Congress definitely should investigate,” Rep. Rohrabacher, R-California, Chairman of the House subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, told ABC News.

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, called for the hearing Wednesday, telling ABC News he was “furious and sad” after watching the “20/20” report.

In the report, six former Peace Corps volunteers and victims of sexual assault recounted the attacks against them. Most of the women said within the Peace Corps there was a culture of blaming the victim, and that they felt they had no advocate in Washington to help cut through red tape to get counseling.

“The Peace Corps needs to get its act together and make sure the victims of rape have peace of mind when they are serving the United States,” Poe said.

Poe said that he will be their advocate in Washington. “The cavalry is coming,” he said.

In the letter asking for the hearing, Poe called the Peace Corps’ alleged treatment of the women “gross negligence in caring for its volunteers abroad.”

The Peace Corps did not adequately protect its volunteers, bring U.S. resources to bear on any criminal investigation, nor provide proper care for the victims in the aftermath,” Poe wrote.

Poe cited the experience of Jess Smochek of Pennsylvania, who was interviewed by ABC News as part of the 20/20 report. Smochek, now 29, joined the Peace Corps in 2004 and was sent to Bangladesh. Just four months after arriving she was gang raped. Smochek said she felt the Peace Corps tried to cover up what happened to her.

“I have three daughters about Jess’s age. They want to save the world too,” said Rep. Poe. “People like Jess are the salt of the earth and it’s just horrible our government doesn’t stand beside them.”

On Monday, Poe dedicated his daily one-minute House Floor speech to Smochek, using information he learned from the 20/20 report.

“According to ABC News,” said Poe, “over 1,000 rapes and assaults occurred in the last 10 years against American women working for the Peace Corps, but apparently no one is listening. Those days need to end, and it’s time for justice for Jess Smochek, because justice is what we do in this country. And that’s just the way it is.”

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  • I welcome this Congressional investigation. But, I wonder if the Congressmen realize that they will also be investigating the actions of a Republican appointed Peace Corps administration during the last decade.

    In 1977, Richard Starr, a PCV in Colombia was kidnapped by FARC. It was in the early days of the Democratic administration of President Carter. Peace Corps’ response was much the same as is seen today.
    The matter was turned over to the State Department. Initial support was offered to Starr’s mother, but then Peace Corps became less concerned, apparently. The State Department’s efforts were not successful, whatever it was those efforts were. Aafter three years in captivity, Starr was ransomed with private money raised by Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson, after a plea from Starr’s mother.

    I think it is important for all of us in the RPCV community to support the victims of violence and to insure a fair and complete Congressional investigation.

  • They had a congressional investigation and hearings in 2003-2004 as a response to a series of newspaper articles. The result was an office of statistics, a new agreement for trainees to sign that they understand “the nature” of their assignment and classes on “life-style.” This is called blaming the victim.

  • In addition to the work of First Response Action, RPCVs have done much to document and analyze Peace Corps operations. Their work should be invaluable to this Congressional investigation.

    “Peace Corps Chronology 1961-2010” by Lawence F. Lihosit, a frequent contributor to Peace Corps World Wide, is going to be the go-to document for the current discussion and Congressional hearings on violence against PCVs. Lorenzo called attention to the problem by focusing on Peace Corps’ own statistics, naming Volunteers who died during or shortly after service, and highlighting the problem in his Introduction.

    Peace Corps On Line, (peacecorpsonline.org) published by RPCV Hugh Pickens is rapidly becomes the independent website of record for the Peace Corps. The site has a record of the Dayton News 2002 series, Congressional Hearings in 2003, 2007 and 2009.

    It also has an extensive analysis of Peace Corps prepared by Chuck Ludlam (Nepal 68-79, Senegal 05-07) and Paula Hirschoff (Kenya 68-70, Senegal 05-7), “ A Twenty Point Plan.” Perhaps most important is Point Seventeen: Ensure Peace Corps Office of Inspector General Again Leads Investigations of Violent Crimes Against Volunteers/Staff. This is a detailed history and analysis of how Peace Corps has handled violent crime, and makes recommendations for the future.

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