March 25, 2004 - Dayton Daily News: Dayton Daily News Editor Jeff Bruce invited to testify at Peace Corps Safety Hearings

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Dayton Daily News Editor Jeff Bruce invited to testify at Peace Corps Safety Hearings

Dayton Daily News Editor Jeff Bruce invited to testify at Peace Corps Safety Hearings

Dayton Daily News Editor Jeff Bruce invited to testify at Peace Corps Safety Hearings


Mar 25, 2004

Dayton Daily News

by Jeff Bruce

Father of missing man urges House committee to change agency

WASHING- TON - When Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, wrote recently in response to this newspaper's series of articles documenting safety problems in the Peace Corps, he included an unusual invitation.

"The committee appreciates the fine manner in which your series has elevated the concern of Peace Corps safety and the excellent reporting that spanned many months of hard work and countless miles of travel to document the experiences of volunteers on assignment in Africa and elsewhere," he said.

He went on to invite me to testify at a hearing his committee was planning in advance of introducing legislation designed to "increase accountability within the Peace Corps by establishing a more independent Inspector General and by creating the position of Ombudsman, as recommended by former Ohio Congressman Tony Hall."

Acknowledging that "inviting a sitting editor of a newspaper to testify is unusual," he wrote that the newspaper's "unique perspective" would be helpful.

This was certainly a first for me. We debated the invitation at the office a bit, worrying about the implications of "becoming part of the story." That's something journalists usually try to avoid. But the series was largely responsible for the hearing taking place. We finally concluded that the newspaper should be represented. After all, we intended the series as a public service.

And that's how it was that I was in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, seated across a hearing room from Hyde and a handful of other members of Congress. To my left at the witness table was Walter Poirier Sr., to my right Peace Corps director Gaddi Vasquez and an official from the General Accounting Office, the Peace Corps Inspector General, and the president of the National Peace Corps Association.

In measured words that failed to disguise the anguish he and his wife have felt, Poirier, whose son Walter has been missing in Bolivia since 2001, told the committee:

"We believe that the lack of supervision, lack of meaningful assignment and the lack of a proper place to live all contributed to the loss of our son."

Vasquez argued that "the safety of the volunteer is the No. 1 priority of the Peace Corps, and remains the primary focus of many of the research, planning, training and compliance components of the agency."

For my part, I cited the highlights of last year's series of articles, authored by reporters Russell Carollo and Mei-Ling Hopgood:

* We interviewed more than 500 people in the United States and 10 foreign countries, filed 75 Freedom of Information Act requests and appeals and ultimately sued the Peace Corps in federal court to secure the records upon which the series was based.

* Major findings included the fact that more than 250 Peace Corps volunteers have died since 1961, including 20 who were murdered. That's a rate of about one death every two months.

* Since 1991, while the number of Peace Corps volunteers has grown by less than 30 percent, the reported incidents of assaults against volunteers have more than doubled. Women represent 70 percent of all assault victims in the Peace Corps.

* While this rate of violence has been rising, the Peace Corps, at best, has been sluggish to respond and, at worst, has deliberately disguised the magnitude of the problem.

Walter Poirier underscored that last observation in his testimony.

"From the beginning, we have found the Peace Corps to be more concerned with its image and protecting the aura and prestige of the Peace Corps than any other issue," he said.

He called the agency's efforts to find his son "too little, too late," and told the committee that "Congress must be brave and bring about change."

Some changes are already evident. The Peace Corps' Web site now posts the agency's annual report on assaults - a report the General Accounting Office has been trying to get the agency to post for two years.

You have to dig into the site to find it, but it's there.

That same Web site serves as the centerpiece for the corps' new recruiting campaign entitled "Life is calling. How far will you go?" The goal is to double the number of volunteers.

Poirier worries about this.

"Only after the safety of each and every individual volunteer is properly addressed should there be an expansion of the Peace Corps," he said. "If not, the incidents that were reported in the Dayton Daily News will increase, perhaps exponentially, as the number of volunteers increases. The robberies, rapes and murders will undoubtedly grow."

Clearly, it is in the best interest of the nation and the Peace Corps to ensure that Poirier's prediction doesn't come true. Perhaps Hyde's legislation will help.

Jeff Bruce is editor of the Dayton Daily News. He can be reached at 225-2335. If you'd like to send him an electronic letter, include your name, address and daytime phone number. His Internet address is To read Jeff Bruce's testimony

and others' remarks, visit:

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Story Source: Dayton Daily News

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Safety and Security of Volunteers; Congress; Investigative Journalism



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