October 26, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Do Peace Corps Practices leave Volunteers Vulnerable to Danger?
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October 26, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Do Peace Corps Practices leave Volunteers Vulnerable to Danger?
Do Peace Corps Practices leave Volunteers Vulnerable to Danger?
"The Peace Corps sends volunteers to countries with crime rates much higher than in the United States. Some risks are unavoidable. But the Daily News found the Peace Corps often puts volunteers in greater danger by placing them in unsafe areas, providing housing that isn't safe, failing to warn them not to travel to risky areas or leaving them alone for up to a year without visits from supervisors," says this excerpt from the Dayton Daily News.
Read and comment on this story from the Dayton Daily News that says that reported assault cases involving Peace Corps volunteers increased over 100 percent from 1991-2002, while the number of volunteers increased by only 29 percent, according to the Peace Corps.
Reporters from the Dayton Daily News spent 20 months examining thousands of records on assaults on Peace Corps volunteers occurring around the world during the past four decades and discovered records from a never-before-released computer database that reported assault cases involving Peace Corps volunteers increased 125 percent from 1991-2002, while the number of volunteers increased by 29 percent. Last year, the number of assaults and robberies averaged one every 23 hours. The examination also found that young Americans many just out of college and the majority of them women are put in danger by fundamental practices of the Peace Corps that have remained unchanged for decades.
Is this an accurate picture of the Peace Corps? Are these occurrences widespread or are these isolated incidents? Is this reporting "fair and balanced" or is it a "witch hunt?" Read the story and the rest of the reports in coming days and leave your comments from your own personal experience at:
PRACTICES LEAVE VOLUNTEERS VULNERABLE TO DANGER*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
PRACTICES LEAVE VOLUNTEERS VULNERABLE TO DANGER
With her hands tied behind her, Cheryl Perkins of Lyman, Maine, tried to escape from five men who had broken into her house in Tanzania.
"I tried to run out, and the guy kicked me in the collarbone neck area," she said. "I gave up and was lying on the floor still tied up."
The house was the fifth one she had moved to in the village of Peramiho, and the 1995 robbery was her third. One of the robbers was an auxiliary policeman who helped solve her previous robbery.
The Peace Corps sends volunteers to countries with crime rates much higher than in the United States. Some risks are unavoidable. But the Daily News found the Peace Corps often puts volunteers in greater danger by placing them in unsafe areas, providing housing that isn't safe, failing to warn them not to travel to risky areas or leaving them alone for up to a year without visits from supervisors.
An increasing percentage of the volunteers placed in these dangerous environments are those most vulnerable to assault: women.
In 1977, male volunteers outnumbered females about 2-to-1. Today, 60 percent of volunteers are women, and they make up 70 percent of all assault victims identified by the Peace Corps since 1990. The agency's inspector general told Congress in 2001 that the changing gender makeup "has potentially significant consequences."
Agency officials acknowledged they have no mandatory guidelines for how often supervisors should visit volunteers, or how many volunteers one person can supervise. Instead, decisions are left to individual country posts, which usually have an associate director visit each volunteer three times over two years.
Several inspector general reports criticize the agency for failing to adequately supervise volunteers and to provide secure housing.
An April 2002 report found that some managers in Russia were responsible for about 25 volunteers each, yet they averaged fewer than three days a month traveling to volunteer sites.
Michael O'Neill, the agency's former security director, said he found a country where one associate director was supervising 52 volunteers scattered across several islands. After he suggested more funds for supervision and other support services, O'Neill said, he was no longer asked to be the agency's contact with congressional investigators looking into volunteer safety.
"I didn't really have a lot of communication with Peace Corps," said Perkins, a volunteer in Tanzania from 1993-95. "I didn't have access to a phone. The only time I would speak with them was if they came to the village, which was once a year, or when I went to Dar es Salaam (the capital), which was a 12- to 14-hour bus trip.
"I was the first one to be in the village. They shouldn't have sent me. I was a young female sent to this village where there were no other volunteers....It wasn't a good situation."
A March 2001 inspector general's report found that the housing for 17 of 32 newly arriving volunteers in Mozambique didn't meet minimum Peace Corps safety and security standards. Some volunteers, the report said, had no housing at all and had to live in hotels.
That same month, a report from Romania noted similar problems: 53 percent of the volunteers said their housing was not inspected by anyone from the Peace Corps before they arrived. The U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, made similar findings in 2002 after visiting five other countries.
"The first year I really walked around in fear," said Cody Thornton of Orangeville, Utah, who changed residences seven times while a volunteer in Kazakhstan from 1999 to 2001.
Travea Ghee of Cincinnati, a volunteer in Ivory Coast from 1998 to 2000, said that after three months of training she was told to find her own way to her site, the village of Gnagbadougnoa.
"They basically said, You're on your own, Ghee said.
The Peace Corps said in a written response to the Dayton Daily News that volunteers are believed to be safest when they're accepted by the communities where they serve. Pairing volunteers, the response says, "is not necessarily safer."
Two days after graduating from East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., 25-year-old Peace Corps volunteer Steve Roberts left the United States for the first time.
Seven months later, he waited to die as four armed bandits raped his girlfriend in a park in Guatemala.
"They tied me up to a tree and then they took my friend, who was a girl, into the bushes a ways, about 20 feet, and then all four of them raped her. It was a nightmare. It was a national park at 9 o'clock on Christmas Eve in the daylight," Roberts said. "I could not see, but I could hear, you know, moaning. They would take turns watching me, even though I was tied to the tree, holding a machete to my head.
"I thought I was going to die."
Eight months after the December 2000 attack, Roberts saw the photographs of two carjackers in a newspaper and identified them as two of the men who robbed him and raped his girlfriend, an employee at the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala City. In early 2002, Roberts and the woman identified the two men at a prison in Guatemala.
"We both identified them separately," said Roberts, who was transferred to the neighboring country of Belize after he identified the men. "I was told they were going to be kept in prison until the trial."
Roberts and a number of other volunteers said that their attackers escaped punishment and that the agency never kept them informed about their cases.
Though the Peace Corps has no authority to prosecute people in foreign countries, it can and has pressured foreign prosecutors and hired local attorneys to represent volunteers. Without such assistance, cases can easily be forgotten in third world criminal justice systems, and other volunteers are put at risk not only from the same attackers but also from the perception that attacking volunteers comes without consequences.
Police, prosecutors and judges in developing countries, where crime is many times greater than in the United States, frequently lack the training, equipment and sometimes the will to spend months or years pursuing a single case. Bringing volunteers back from the United States to testify is difficult, and sometimes the Peace Corps doesn't pursue such cases.
The Peace Corps also has no written policies requiring that volunteers who are victimized by crime be notified about the processing of criminal charges against their attackers.
Chad DuMond was shot in the stomach and nearly died from his injuries more than three years ago in the Lesotho capital of Maseru, but he has yet to be interviewed about the attack by a Peace Corps investigator. "That was something I was really angry about for about a year or a year and a half: not having any follow-up" investigation, DuMond said.
Steve Roberts for years asked about the men who tied him to a tree and raped his girlfriend in Guatemala.
"I wanted to put those guys behind bars," he said. "I didn't hear anything in April (2002). I didn't hear anything in May. In June, I pressed, and they said, Oh, well, you know, these things take time....I've been sort of forgotten about."
Country Director Charles Reilly agreed to speak to a Daily News reporter at his office in Guatemala City, but when the reporter showed up, one of his assistants said Reilly didn't have permission to speak.
In December 2002, two years after the attack, Reilly sent an e-mail to Roberts saying that authorities "just sat on the evidence and did nothing," according to a copy of the e-mail provided by Roberts.
"I don't know whether we can get financing anymore. . . . Probably not," Reilly wrote. "I don't know whether I can get Peace Corps to authorize either a Justice Department lawyer or more money for (a legal adviser)."
In February 2003, Reilly wrote to Roberts again, saying he was "wrestling with Peace Corps" to get funds for a new case: a January 2003 rape and abduction involving two female volunteers in Guatemala.
"I have reminded Peace Corps-Washington that safety and security for the Peace Corps volunteers includes keeping thugs in jail, but they have been unresponsive, especially to your case," Reilly wrote. "So it doesn't look good."
SECRECY MASKS DANGER TO VOLUNTEERS
Blood ran down the face of 24-year-old Mindy Day Hodges of Los Angeles, as her attacker continued to beat her on a street in Bamako, the capital of Mali.
He started undoing his belt and lifted her dress. She was able to escape.
A Peace Corps official in Mali wanted to keep the 1997 assault on Hodges "in-house" and initially didn't notify the U.S. embassy, according to a handwritten Peace Corps document obtained after the Daily News filed a lawsuit against the agency.
The Peace Corps kept information on many assaults and deaths from the public, from families and from its own volunteers, while emphasizing the more positive aspects of service.
The families of some volunteers learned details about the deaths of their relatives through the Daily News, which obtained the information in other countries or from Peace Corps documents.
Several volunteers in El Salvador and Guatemala said they were not told about the 1996 Christmas rapes or warned to stay away from that area.
"I think part of it was they didn't want to call attention on the part of the American public to the risks volunteers take for fear of, I think, Congress looking disfavorably on the Peace Corps," said Tony Gasbarro of Fairbanks, Alaska, who was presented a Peace Corps service award this year by former President Carter for his work in El Salvador. "I just felt that we should be informed as to what happened, just for the sake of our own security."
More than three weeks after the Christmas rapes, the Peace Corps issued a press release announcing the arrests of six people "in connection with an armed robbery and assault." The release doesn't mention that anyone was raped.
Though the Peace Corps hasn't always kept the public informed, the agency and the State Department closely monitored what the media reported about assaults on volunteers.
When a newspaper in Guatemala published a story about a 1997 abduction that resulted in a rape there, the State Department vowed to "raise the issue of the leak" with Guatemala officials, according to department records.
Following a court hearing concerning an April 23, 1998, rape of a volunteer in Macedonia, a Peace Corps document reports: "There was no press or news reporters present in the court session, and thus far has been no query to either the Peace Corps offices or to the U.S. Embassy about this case. There was no press coverage in today's newspapers.
"I think this is perhaps the best we can hope for."
In 1999, when an alleged assault in Kherson, Ukraine, generated negative publicity for the Peace Corps, agency officials instructed volunteers to "not discuss this situation with the media," and to ask the victim not to make any public statements.
The incident, according to Ukraine police, involved two volunteers taken into custody after they got off a train drunk, laughing and cursing as one of them fell to the ground at the city's main station. A male volunteer reported that police raped him, an allegation that angered Ukraine authorities, who declined to file charges despite pressure from the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
Following an article in a Ukraine newspaper, the agency tried to determine "which Peace Corps volunteer provided input" to the article.
Authorities in Ukraine, under Communist control only 12 years ago, were not as secretive as the Peace Corps. Authorities in three Ukraine cities provided access to records to the Daily News, and police in Kherson allowed a reporter to review their files on the case and provided copies.
"Ukraine is a democratic country," Kherson's chief of the regional police department said after agreeing to grant an American reporter full access to his files. "The press is free. We have nothing to hide."
FORGOTTEN VOLUNTEERS FAIL TO FIND SUPPORT
Kristy Lord of Whitinsville, Mass., couldn't breathe as the taxi driver pinned her against the back seat on a rural road outside of Sucre, Bolivia, on Feb. 28, 1999.
"He had his hands over my face and nose," said Lord, who was a 26-year-old recent college graduate. "I was scared to get out of the car because there were cliffs on either side, and he said he would throw me over and nobody would ever find me."
Lord said the taxi driver then raped her.
Eight months later, the Peace Corps quit pursuing her attacker. But it didn't quit pursuing Lord, compiling report after report documenting her parents' marital status, her mother's prescription medication, the volunteer's fear of walking alone at night before using the more than 100 pages of records to expel her from the Peace Corps following her affair with a married teacher.
"I was crying. I felt like I had already survived this. . . .I only had a few months left," said Lord, now a case manager with an agency that assists people with AIDS in Rochester, N.Y. "I was sent home without my belongings, without saying goodbye to close friends and counterparts, and without money."
The Peace Corps has an international reputation for helping the less fortunate people of the world, but among some volunteers who have been raped, robbed, injured or stricken with life-threatening illnesses, its image is one of an agency that doesn't care.
Fearing for her safety following a threat, Christina Hildebrandt of Longmont, Colo., decided to leave the African country of Gabon in June 1991.
"I started sleeping with a machete next to my bed," she said. "At this point I said, What am I doing here?
The Peace Corps, she said, refused to pay the $1,200 for the plane ticket home, so she paid it herself. Her boyfriend, now her husband, sued the Peace Corps to get the money back but the suit was dismissed.
"If they were in more of a compassionate mood, maybe they would have paid," she said.
After her face was disfigured during a 1998 attack in Africa, Jennifer Petersen said she had to "beg" the agency for a ride to the airport. She found out later that her injuries meant she would be terminated from the Peace Corps and forced to depend on federal workers' compensation to pay her medical bills. "When I got back to the states, I went to Minneapolis, where I began two and a half years of reconstructive surgery," she said. "Peace Corps was out of the picture almost immediately. They sent my file to the Department of Labor, and from then on I was claim number 250535."
After she was raped in the taxi in Bolivia, Kristy Lord was sent to live alone in the village of Novillero, where she had no telephone service, no radio and where most of the children she was supposed to teach couldn't understand the only foreign language the Peace Corps taught her: Spanish. In Novillero, Lord said, she began a brief affair with a married teacher.
Eight months after the rape and months after Lord said she ended the affair, the Peace Corps expelled her for "adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct."
"Her adjustment disorder is also related to her experience of moving to a new site as a volunteer and being unable to tolerate the loneliness there without involving herself in a self-destructive relationship," a Peace Corps psychologist wrote.
A taxi driver Lord initially identified as her attacker was eliminated as a suspect, and records show that neither the Peace Corps nor police pursued other suspects.
Bolivia Country Director Meredith Smith said she decided to withdraw the agency's support from the investigation because she believed that Bolivian authorities would not look favorably on Lord's relationship with the married man.
"No matter how that seems to us in the United States, that was their attitude," said Smith, who taught nutrition at Kansas State University and acknowledged having no background in law enforcement.
Although she believed that Lord was raped, Smith said she questioned the volunteer's actions after getting into the cab.
"She had plenty of chances to escape and stayed with this guy in the taxi," Smith said. "She may have thought that was a really neat guy she had met and, you know, maybe he would be somebody interesting to date. I don't really know. I don't know what was going on in her mind."
Smith said she sent Lord home because her behavior with men put her in danger.
"I didn't want her raped again, she said.
Since the attack on Lord, eight other volunteers were assaulted in or next to taxis in Bolivia, and at least three of them were abducted.
"IT SHOULD HAVE NEVER HAPPENED."
The Christmas rapes in El Salvador left Diana Gilmour with terrifying memories.
"I had night terrors where I'd be awake and I'd be sure someone was in my parents' bedroom killing them," she said. "I know it was straight out of that fear that I had of knowing somebody was nearby that I cared about and not knowing if they were alive or dead."
Gilmour until recently worked as a speech therapist, helping children with autism and other problems. She didn't want the state where she lives identified, but both Gilmour and her fiance agreed she should speak publicly about what happened in order to protect other volunteers.
Gilmour, one of three volunteers raped in El Salvador on Christmas Day 1996, questioned why the Peace Corps allowed female volunteers to travel to such a dangerous area or why it allowed a volunteer, Tom Luben, to be stationed there. "We told them we were going to Tom Luben's site," Gilmour said. "They knew where we were going. You have to fill out an itinerary."
Luben, who declined to be interviewed, was stationed in Agua Fria, a remote village of a dozen or so families. Though the village is only about eight miles down the coast from the popular tourist beach of El Cuco, the only way in is a narrow dirt road littered with holes and large rocks; along the road, men young and old walk with machetes in their hands or strapped to their waists.
Strangers, especially foreigners, are easily recognized along this road, and the volunteers who were assaulted weren't hard to spot: Several rode for miles atop a bus. Word spread in the tiny community that Americans were in the area, as the volunteers spent the days swimming and the nights lighting bonfires on the beach.
Asked if he had ever seen an American woman at Agua Fria before, Nicolas Rivera, standing in his front yard overlooking the one-room house where Luben once lived, said, "Nunca (Never)."
After the civil war ended in 1992, criminals roamed El Salvador armed with military assault rifles, grenades and semiautomatic pistols as crime rose to "crisis proportions," said a State Department document. Rural areas like Agua Fria became especially dangerous because they lacked adequate police protection and communication.
"Of course none of us had any clue as to how dangerous it was," Gilmour said. "We were never warned about going to El Salvador. . . . My uncle works for the foreign service, and he was shocked we went down there."
"It should have never happened."
Both a prosecutor and police officers said the area is a well-known haven for criminals.
"We didn't realize it was dangerous at the time," said Meredith Smith, the former country director in Bolivia who was acting country director in Guatemala when the Christmas rapes occurred. "When that incident happened, we realized that a group of volunteers together would attract people."
During an interview earlier this year, El Salvador Country Director Mike Wise said no other volunteers had been stationed there.
Because Gilmour didn't want to return to Guatemala and complete her service, she said, the Peace Corps refused to pay her the $2,000 to $3,000 volunteers receive at the end of their service.
"It was technically their fault that it happened, and I got nothing. I got 400 bucks," she said. "When I got that check, my mother was livid. She was absolutely livid. My parents had to support me."
Six men were arrested for the Christmas rapes. At least three were convicted on charges of aggravated rape and sentenced to the maximum penalty of 30 years. During interviews at a prison near San Salvador, two continued to deny their guilt. The Peace Corps, Gilmour said, gave her little information about the case. "I didn't even know they got convicted," she said. "I found out nothing."
The Peace Corps did, however, continue to correspond with her.
"They actually sent me postcards asking me to speak on behalf of the Peace Corps and try to recruit people," she said, adding that she refused. "No way. I was telling people to be careful. I was like: It could be the best experience of your life, but it could also be the worst.
Elliot Jaspin, Ken McCall and Christine Willmsen contributed to this story.
[From the Dayton Daily News: 10.26.2003]
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Why does Peace Corps say this story provides a "misleading picture?"
July 5, 2003 - PCOL Exclusive: A Volunteer's Courage
Why did Peace Corps issue an "informational message" on October 18 that after numerous discussions with reporter Russell Carollo, they believe that this story in the Dayton Daily News "will provide a misleading picture of the Peace Corps and Peace Corps Volunteer service, particularly with respect to safety and security:"
Take a look at the story "Peace Corps Online" published earlier this year about the Health Care that Returned Volunteers receive in the United States for illnesses and injuries that occur during their service overseas and our recommendation that the Peace Corps find out how widespread this problem is and appoint a working group to study the problem and issue recommendations for solving it. Read the story that received over eighty posts and comments from RPCVs about a problem that the Peace Corps still has not addressed at:
Based on numerous discussions with the reporter, we believe the upcoming series about Peace Corps by Russell Carollo, which is scheduled to run October 26th, will provide a misleading picture of the Peace Corps and Peace Corps Volunteer service, particularly with respect to safety and security. For example, Mr. Carollo indicated he would print that assaults and rapes have substantially increased in recent years. However, the facts are that Peace Corps data shows a significant decrease in the rate of major sexual assault events over the past six years as this type of assault event is down by more than 30 percent since 1997. As NPCA members know, Peace Corps has placed and continues to place its highest priority on the safety and security of Volunteers. Every Peace Corps director beginning with Sargent Shriver has maintained this focus and added training, procedures, and systems as region and world circumstances change. Utilizing this focus, and through its reporting and tracking systems, Peace Corps has achieved great successes in recent years in reducing major assault incidents and rapes. Unfortunately, we believe that this fact will not be represented in the article. We also understand that this story will argue that the world is too dangerous a place for Peace Corps Volunteers and will include selected and not representational anecdotes and incidents spanning the past 30 plus years. We also have great concerns about the intentions of the reporter, who stated to Kevin Quigley, among others, after Kevin informed Mr. Carollo of the many positive attributes of the Peace Corps, that many others have said the same thing. Mr. Carollo further stated that Peace Corps is an agency that has had nothing but good stories written about it over the past 40 years. He then said he was not interested in these positive remarks; he was interested in the problems.
July 5, 2003 - PCOL Exclusive: A Volunteer's Courage
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