Congressman Ted Poe Takes On The Peace Corps

[Republican Congressman Ted Poe of Texas later this month, or early next month, will begin a series of Hearings on the Hill about PCVs being attacked and raped. Here is the speech he gave today, February 9, 2011, on the Hill.]

ROLL CALL OF THE PEACE CORPS VICTIMS

Washington, Feb 9 –

Mr. Speaker, I want to address an important issue that has come to light recently. It has to do with the wonderful group of volunteers that serve in the United States Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps was the idea of John F. Kennedy. He went to the University of Michigan way back in 1960, and he started encouraging those college students to get involved in other countries and helping those countries in their social development and their cultural development in the name of peace. A wonderful idea.

When he became President in 1961, President Kennedy signed an Executive order establishing the now important Peace Corps. By 1966, there were over 15,000 young Americans, all volunteers, that were working in the Peace Corps throughout the world.

Since those early days of the Peace Corps, 200,000 Americans, mostly young people, 60 percent female, have volunteered for their two year service in the Peace Corps to work in Third World countries on everything from health to farming to small business, just helping other people throughout the world in a way that not only benefits them personally but benefits the recipients in these foreign countries. They really are, in my opinion, along with our United States military, the greatest ambassadors we have from our country to show that we are concerned about the welfare of other nations. And they help build a better life for not only the people that they come in contact with, but their generations and the children that they have as well. I think they are really volunteer angels.

The work that a Peace Corps volunteer does is hard work. It’s important, but it’s very difficult. They’re in a place far from home, sometimes very remote and primitive areas, and yet they, on a daily basis, are working to improve the lives of these individuals.

Like I said, I think it’s one of the best things that we do in this country as ambassadors are those young people in the Peace Corps. It’s tough work. It’s hard work. I wouldn’t do it. It’s so difficult. And you know, there are people in our country, a lot of them mainly young people who choose that as a calling to help other people in other countries.

I’ve got four kids, and they’re all kind of wanting to save the world, too. They’ve been to Mexico and lived in orphanages in Trinidad. They’ve been to Honduras. They’ve been to Africa and Zambia, all with that mentality of helping other people.

But the Peace Corps volunteers are people like that who spend at least two years in service to their country. And sometimes when they are in those foreign countries, they stick out. They are noticeable by the people who live in that country. Because of that, occasionally, more often than it should be, they attract crimes that occur against them. That is the issue, Mr. Speaker, I want to address tonight.

Over the last ten years, 1,000 Americans, mainly women, have been sexually assaulted, raped or assaulted in some other way, in a foreign country representing the United States in the Peace Corps.

Between 2000 and 2009, the Peace Corps themselves say there were over 221 rapes and attempted rapes, almost 150 major sexual attacks, and 700 other sexual assaults. Sexual assault is anything from groping to fondling to conduct that is offensive to that Peace Corps volunteer. Once again, 1,000 crimes against American Peace Corps volunteers. Recently, the Peace Corps has announced that there is an average of 22 rapes a year against American Peace Corps volunteers.

This is not acceptable, Mr. Speaker. We are talking about real people. They are real stories and they are real victims, and I want to mention just a few of those tonight in the limited time that I have.

The first of those is a person that I have gotten to know personally. A wonderful person, Jess Smochek.

She joined the Peace Corps in 2004. On her first day as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh, a group of men started sexually groping her as she was just walking to the home that she was supposed to live in, but no one really did anything. She told the Peace Corps staff over and over again that she felt unsafe in Bangladesh in the situation she was in, but nobody did anything.

Months later, she came in contact with some men who kidnapped her. They beat her and they sexually assaulted her, but they weren’t through. They abandoned her and threw her in an abandoned alley somewhere in Bangladesh.

According to Jess, the Peace Corps did everything they could to cover this up because they seemed to be more worried about the officials in Bangladesh and what they thought might happen to their relationship with the United States than they did about caring for this victim of crime. Jess says that the Peace Corps blamed her for the conduct of others. They blamed her for being a sexual-assault victim.

Mr. Speaker, a rape victim is never to blame for the crime that is committed against her. It is the offender that is always to blame. And we need to understand that these precious people who go overseas and represent us, when a crime is committed against them, we take their side. And we don’t assume they did anything wrong, because they didn’t. They were just a victim of crime, and the criminal is the one that should be held accountable for that conduct. Rape is never the fault of the victim. It’s always the fault of the perpetrator.

But Jess got no satisfaction from the Peace Corps, according to her. When she got home, she was told to tell other people that she was coming back to the United States for medical reasons, to have her wisdom teeth pulled out.

This was her case and a few others were brought to light recently by “ABC News” and “20/20,” bringing her story and others. There are more, and I will try to cover as many as I can in the time that I have.

Laurel Jackson was sent to Romania, a Peace Corps volunteer. She was constantly harassed, both physically and verbally. She couldn’t walk to her house where she was staying without verbal assaults and things being thrown at her. She was spit on, she was punched, and rocks were thrown at her and her life was threatened several times. This took place on a weekly basis. They told her that a young American with blonde hair would stand out, and that she was going to continue to be a victim.

She was fondled over ten times when she tried to ride public transportation. So she quit riding public transportation in Romania, and she started walking, to help these folks in Romania. She said that the Peace Corps knew that these crimes were happening against her, but she says they didn’t take it seriously and no legal recourse was offered. She was exposed to by young men who exposed themselves; and she was told, well, don’t be around those people. No one did anything, and no one cared.

When she was followed home by some men, she did talk to the police and they gave her some bodyguards. She requested a new location, but she was turned down and her transfer was denied.

When she returned home, she tried to get counseling, but she received no counseling for the crimes committed against her. And here is what she has to say. She said, “I would have liked the Peace Corps to have never put me there. They knew it was unsafe for me. They should have communicated with the police and the school in their own investigation. I would have liked them to take me more seriously when I reported these crimes. I would have liked to have had counseling when I returned.” But once again, Mr. Speaker, no one did anything.

When she left Romania, she told the Peace Corps not to send anybody else over there, but they did. And the person who replaced her was also racially abused with swastikas drawn on her residence because she was a Jewish American.

The next individual, I’m not going to use her real name because she doesn’t want us to know her true identity, but she grew up on a ranch. She now lives in Texas, and she went to Lesotho in May of 1996 to convince farmers to plant trees and show them how to do that. But Mary Jo, as I will call her, stuck out the two years in this location, even though it was difficult. She lived in a small village in a string of villages that were about 80 miles south of Maseru.

She had arranged her ticket back to the United States when she was attacked because she felt unsafe. But here is what happened to her.

On an evening in 1999, Mary Jo and her neighbor left a village shop and were headed down a dirt path to their home. Her neighbor’s ex-boyfriend followed and after a confrontation struck Mary Jo with a rock. The blow knocked out six of her teeth, destroyed her eye socket, and left a palm-sized crater in her face. The rock had crushed the bones in her face, and blood had started coming down the back into her throat. She ended up alone in a deserted section of the hospital when she was finally found. She says, “It was dark, I was scared, and I didn’t know where anyone was.”

Taxis only ran from her village at night, and so she couldn’t really reach the Peace Corps. So some neighbors found someone to drive her 20 miles to a local hospital. She remembers a young woman stitching her up and she remembers being, once again, left alone, abandoned. She felt abandoned by her own country.

The next day, she was moved to another hospital in South Africa, where a surgeon installed a metal plate to hold the bones together around her left eye and her chin and cheeks and nose.

The Peace Corps brought her back to her home base, but she said they didn’t help her in her recovery. Mary Jo and her sister, who had flown in from the United States, had to sleep in a hotel because the agency wouldn’t let them stay in a transit house, and they had difficulty getting back to the United States. She even had to beg the staff to take her to the airport. At no time, according to her, did the Peace Corps ask her what they could do to help. She said, “It was terrible. I was so messed up.” She has had ten operations in two and a half years, and surgeons put metal plates in her face and she also has false teeth.

Mary Jo, being the remarkable person she is, said she wasn’t really angry at the Peace Corps because she was attacked in this village by villagers. She was angry because nobody in the agency seemed to care. Once again, no one did anything.

“It was like I was never in the Peace Corps,” she said. And when she got home, no one contacted her from the Peace Corps to check on her to see how this victim of crime was doing. The attacker went to jail for three weeks, but he was later released because Mary Jo had come back to the United States.

Kate Puzey was another angel from America who had gone to help a country that most of us have never heard of or would be able to locate on a map, Benin, where she went in 2007. She was a teacher at a local school. She formed a girls’ club to help empower the young women that were in this school.

It’s hard to be a girl in that part of the world, according to Kate’s cousin, Ms. Jacobs. And the girls started speaking about some of the issues they were facing, and they were starting to communicate that to Kate. Before long, the girls began to tell Kate about another person who worked for the Peace Corps but wasn’t an American. He was a citizen of Benin who was paid by the Peace Corps to help work with the Peace Corps. His name was Constant Bio, and these girls had said that this person was sexually assaulting these young girls.

She had started hearing that he had been sleeping with some of the girls, he had gotten some of them pregnant, and some of them had been raped.

At the request of several teachers, Kate sent an email to the Peace Corps in Benin’s capital recommending that this person be fired from the Peace Corps. She said, “Please believe me, I’m not someone who likes to create problems, but this has been weighing on me heavily.” This was in an email that she sent that was found later and turned over to ABC News. “This man is not someone I want representing the Peace Corps to this community.”

Bio’s brother worked as a manager in the Peace Corps office, and she asked her role to be kept secret because she didn’t want this criminal, this rapist of young girls, in this country, to know that she had reported him. But he found out about it anyway. And so when he found out about it, this is what happened: on March 11, 2009, the day after the Peace Corps authorities had fired this criminal, Bio, and just two months short of completing her two year commitment to the Peace Corps, Kate was found dead on her front porch with her throat slit.

The Puzey family says the Peace Corps was insensitive in its treatment of them until officials had learned about the ABC News report, and then they got more involved. Unfortunately, it was too late. Unfortunately, no one did anything or paid attention.

Before the news reported this murder, this homicide, the Puzey family believes and states that the Peace Corps did little to show compassion or interest. Kate’s father Harry says this: “She was my hero. I thought maybe a representative would come to the house to talk to us, or at least a letter in the mail. But that did not happen, because just a box showed up with my daughter’s belongings that came by deliveryman.” This is disrespectful, Mr. Speaker, to the life of this wonderful person and to her family.

Now the Peace Corps has changed some of their procedures, and we will get to that in just a minute.

The fifth example I want to talk about is Jill Hoxmeier. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guyana, which is in South America. She was a volunteer, and she had created ways to help young women combat and understand the disease of HIV/AIDS and other functions and other diseases. She was teaching them life-skill courses and wanted to help build stronger relationships between the mothers there and their daughters.

In 2007, a year into her service, she was riding her bike home from work when she was assaulted, dragged in the bushes and sexually assaulted by a man who had been following her for some time. He choked her so hard she couldn’t breathe or even scream.

She believes the Peace Corps needs to do more to help victims cut through the bureaucratic red tape and get the care they need. “It was too hard to navigate the problems that I had been going through all by myself.” Once again, insensitivity, and nothing seemed to happen.

Jess and other victims who are members of the Peace Corps who have been victims have formed an organization, a support group, but it is going to be a group that is going to be active. They call it the First Response Action Group, and we will see more of them hopefully here on the Hill.

Today, I met with the Director of the Peace Corps, Aaron Williams, who happened to be in the Peace Corps years ago. He is now the director. I explained to him and talked to him about these issues and other cases that have come to light, and he and I discussed this problem. We are going to have, hopefully, a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on this very issue, the Peace Corps and the relationship it has with its volunteers throughout the world, how to make them safe, how to take care of them once a crime is committed against them and how to take care of them after that crime has been committed against them.

The Peace Corps Director, Mr. Williams, assures me that they are going to develop a victim advocate program and hire a victim advocate. They are going to help these victims of crime get counseling services. They are going to help them medically, even after they have been discharged from the Peace Corps. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor has issues in dealing with these Peace Corps volunteers who are no longer in Peace Corps service who still have issues that they need to be taken care of, and the Peace Corps is going to work with the Department of Labor to work out this bureaucratic nonsense.

Every victim, he says, is going to have access to medical counseling and legal services; and when a crime is committed against an American in the Peace Corps overseas, the ambassador of that country is going to contact the highest ranking official in that country to let them know that America wants some results and wants to take care of the victim, but also wants the perpetrator held accountable.

One of the most important things that Director Williams has agreed to do is to set up a victims advocacy program, a victims advocacy advisory board made up of different groups like RAINN and other NGOs to give advice to the Peace Corps on how to take care of victims of crime. So we are not going to let this issue die. We are going to continue to promote and understand the Peace Corps.

But we want these wonderful people in the Peace Corps, who have in the past been harmed and had crimes committed against them, we want to rescue them as a nation. We want to take care of them, and the Director of the Peace Corps says we will go back and help those people. We want to take care of Peace Corps volunteers now that are being assaulted. 22 a year, that is 22 too many. We don’t want it to happen to anybody. But we want to take care of them, and we want to have procedures to make sure the Peace Corps is listening and takes care of victims of crime as well.

You know, Mr. Speaker, I spent most of my life at the court house in Houston. I was a prosecutor and criminal court judge for 30 years. I saw many of these victims of crime. Sexual assault, rape, to me is the worst crime that can be committed against a person. You can understand why people steal; you can understand some crimes. But that crime of sexual assault is a crime not of sex, but a crime of power; but it is also an attempt by the perpetrator to destroy the inner soul of the victim. We need to understand that, and we need to take these people, these victims, these wonderful volunteers of America, and take care of them.

We are doing a better job as a nation in taking care of our wounded warriors in the military, another great group of ambassadors that represents the rest of us. They come home with all kinds of injuries, and we are finally taking care of them. We need to understand that these Peace Corps volunteers are just as precious and take care of them as well.

People cry “peace, peace,” but there can be no peace as long as there is one American Peace Corps volunteer that has no peace.

 

And that’s just the way it is.

14 Comments

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  • I believe Representative Ted Poe is sincere and I welcome this investigation. However, it is important for Representative Poe to acknowledge that Director Williams was not the Director when the stated atrocities against Volunteers happened. Peace Corps is not an independent agency; it is a creature of the White House. Its Director and thirty of the people in decision making positions are appointed by the White House. With the exception of the incident cited for 1996, all of these horrors cited occurred during a Republican administration with Republican appointeed Directors and decision making staff.

    I am emphasizing this fact, not to make this a partisan issue. But to illustrate that the current Peace Corps and the current Director can not be held responsible for that which did not happen during their watch.

    If this is not make clear immediately, then this could become an political attack on the current Peace Corps administration.

  • While these Hearings might appear to be about the Peace Corps, it also provides the Republicans with a wonderful opportunity to go after Obama, as they said they would if they got control of the House. The Peace Corps might be ‘mom’s apple pie’ but it is also ‘low hanging fruit’ and by beating up on Williams, and the current Peace Corps administration, for ‘mishandling’ rape cases, the Republicans will gloss over the fact that Bush was in office for 8 years. So, at the moment, and for most of this coming spring, the Peace Corps will be, as Sarah Palin likes to put it, ‘in the cross-hairs.’

  • Perhaps Poe’s intention is to make sure the steps being taken to correct the poor handling of PCVs who have been victims of these crimes are actually implemented in a timely fashion.

  • John, Leo,

    I believe that Poe is sincere. He has a long standing reputation as a victims’ rights advocate. I also think that the Republicans have an agenda not just to discredit Obama but to roll back the major federal legislative achievements of the last fifty years.

    To his credit, Poe is separating out the serving Volunteer from the actual agency. Most people don’t do that. They see Peace Corps as a long standing agency, consistent through the decades in terms of staff and purpose. I have talked witharchivists working with Peace Corps Records who thought I had “worked” for Peace Corps for twenty years in Colombia; who did not know what ACTION was and its one time relationship with Peace Corps; and, one who thought that Peace Corps was a program out of the Kennedy Foundation. This lack of accurate information means that the Republicans can paint PC with what ever brush they wish.

    Right now, Peace Corps is linked in the public mind with Sarge Shriver, Camelot and other “liberal” programs. This is, of course, because of the attention paid to Shriver at his death.
    It would be ironic if the “keep myth alive” crowd within the Peace Corps community contributed to its ultimate demise.

  • Joey

    No sure what you mean by saying, “..major federal legislative achievements…” My own experience is that most Americans do not know that the Peace Corps is still in business. This is no doubt the result of it never achieving the status of a major player at home or abroad. It remains an idea or ideal but not a “‘living” undertakng.

  • Leo, This is my opinion. I will state it, but many may disagree, so I won’t defend it. I will explain why I believe that the Republicans are working to roll back the major legislative of the past fifty years. I include civil rights legislation and medicare/mediaid. The target is the 14th amendment which is the lynchpin for civil rights. One flank wants to change the meaning of citizenship so that one born in the US is not automatically a citizen. Another ones to change the meaning of “equal protection of the law” to restrict its application only to white and black men and to further restrict its application only to those specific items mentioned in the 14th.

    They also want to redefine the 10th amendment to allow the individual states to be responsible for deciding if discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodation should be illegal. They also want abortion issues to be decided at the state level; and, all medical care to the poor optional and medicare voluntary within the individual states. They want to bypass the constitutional amendment to create these changes. Instead, they want Congress to pass legislation “interpreting” the Constitution. A challenge would go to the Supreme Court where they believe the conservative agenda would prevail.

    In order to develop public opinion to support this agenda, there is an all out pr campaign against “liberals” and “liberal programs.”

    This is my concern, certainly far afield from this blog and its wonderful contributors. However, I do think that this is why Peace Corps is in the “cross hairs.”

  • Joey

    You may be interested in knowing that in most countries merely being born in the country does not confer citizenship on you. In fact, many specifically state that geneology, not geography, determines your citizenship.

    I believe the question of “States’ Rights” has been an issue in US politics since creation of the Republic. I am sure it will continue to be a constant issue in our body politic.

  • Leo, Thanks for the comparative government lesson, but I am an American and I like the way we do citizenship in the United States. I want to keep it that way.

    Let me be clear about states’ rights. “Equality before the law” should not be the determinaton of a state government. To me that is neither a benign issue nor open to negotiation. I was so lucky to be an Army brat and grow up in the 50s in a miliary environment which was integrated. But I know how awful it was for my friends who were not white when their dads got orders to go to a Jim Crow state. The Army allowed those soldiers to have compassionate transfers out of their unit so that they wouldn’t have to subject their families to segregation or worse. But it still was horrible to see Americans treated that way.

    So, I will do whatever I can to see that we don’t go back to those days or consider them just a matter of political opinion. You want to sell beer on Sundays. No problem. You want to put people in jail because they are in a racially mixed marriage? PROBLEM

  • Joey

    I am struck by your comment, “…I am an American and I like the way we do citizenship in the United States.” It sounds like the reason you support the policy is the fact you are an American, rather than some careful study of the subject. “My country right or wrong, my country.” I believe there are lots of lessons we can learn from other peoples. Isn’t that one of the “Three Goals of the Peace Corps?”

  • Come on, Leo. I am proud to be an American for many reasons. Birthright citizenship is one of them. It is how my family and I got to be citizens. How did you get to be a citizen?

    I am glad that you brought this back to the Peace Corps. I think most of us met people all around the world who wanted to come to America. They may not have liked the policies of the United States, they may not even have liked us. But almost all wanted to come here for the promise of being part of this country.

  • Joey

    I was born in Washington DC, as was my father. However, my two daughters were born in other countries. One country offered my daughter citizenship there, the other said she could not be a citizen. My daughters were, of course, Americans from birth because both parents were Americans.

    I don’t question your pride in being an American. We both joined the Peace Corps because we were Americans who cared about our country and its place in the world.

  • As a RPCV, I applaud his efforts to find PC volunteers the support they needed. After 2 years, we aren’t just far from home, we actually create another home in a different country and it was hands down one of the best and empowering experiences of my life. I learned so much from my experience and new friends and hope that I was able to impart some knowledge as well.

    While I am grateful for the new measures put in place for PCVs, I would like to see the more issues more relevant to a greater number of Americans also addressed, specifically the backlog of rape kits (about 180,000 last I heard) which essentially aids in leaving 180,000 American sexual assault victims without justice and the current statistic that 1 in 5 female college students are victims of sexual assault of some kind.

    I am all for taking care of our volunteers abroad, but let’s face it, being a female is unfortunately dangerous in a lot of different places. I’d like to see it be safer to be a female in the US.

  • blame the Republican’s what a laugh, I know Jess, and she got no help for the PC. no help what so ever. Its time to stop sending kids by their self to these 3rd world countrys. Its not safe, jim

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