Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Washington Post: Crimes against volunteers vex Peace Corps

By Lisa Rein, published August 20, 2011

A Peace Corps volunteer had been raped in Bolivia and wanted justice. Within hours, Julie De Mello was on an airplane from Washington to meet the victim.

De Mello, employed by the Peace Corps inspector general as a senior federal agent investigating crimes against volunteers, worked with the 23-year-old victim, Erin Bingham, to sketch the attacker. De Mello went with Bingham to a police lineup, hired a lawyer to represent her and worked with local police to track down witnesses.

In May, three Peace Corps volunteers who were raped while serving overseas spoke of their experiences to lawmakers, expressing disappointment with the way they were treated.

De Mello believes her advocacy helped convict the rapist in 2008. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Today, a Peace Corps volunteer who is the victim of a violent crime is likely to get a far less aggressive U.S. government response. De Mello quit three years ago, after the agency grounded her and the four other investigators who routinely traveled abroad to help local police investigate.

The Peace Corps in 2008 moved the responsibility for working with local police from the inspector general’s office to its own in-country security staffers, most of whom have little or no law enforcement training but who are already on the scene in the host countries. After the change, the rate of prosecutions in sex crimes involving volunteers dropped slightly, records show.

New system is defended

Peace Corps officials say the system is working, and spokeswoman Allison Price said it is difficult to draw conclusions from incomplete statistics kept by the agency. She said the decision to move crime response to local security staffs “was made to ensure a proper alignment of functions,” but she declined to elaborate.

“We take the security of all volunteers seriously,” said Edward Hobson, chief of the Peace Corps’ Office of Safety and Security and a former forensic investigator in Orlando. “If a volunteer chooses to pursue legal options after a crime, we stand beside them every step of the way.”

Victims and critics say the change was among many missteps the Peace Corps has made in protecting its 8,655 volunteers and trainees. The humanitarian organization, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, has come under fire in recent months for its handling of sexual assaults and the death of a volunteer in West Africa. The young woman, Kate Puzey, was killed days after she told Peace Corps staff that a fellow teacher was molesting students.

In May, Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams acknowledged problems and promised changes at a congressional hearing, where lawmakers and crime victims complained that the Peace Corps suffers from a “blame-the-victim” culture.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), chief House sponsor of a bill that would force the Peace Corps to give sexual assault victims more support, said in an interview that he did not know the Peace Corps had shifted responsibility for crime investigations to in-country security personnel.

“It would seem to me that in criminal cases, you need trained officers responding rather than people who have other duties,” he said.

Peace Corps staff members operate in each of the 77 developing countries where volunteers are posted. They function separately from the U.S. embassies and include security officers who handle many duties. Often, they have no law enforcement background.

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