Sunday, June 16, 2013

Article: Many Peace Corps volunteers still stay silent about assaults

From El Paso Inc. about Peace Corps' implementation of the Kate Puzey Act of 2011.

Posted: Sunday, May 26, 2013 6:00 pm
By Stewart M. Powell Hearst Newspaper

WASHINGTON – Peace Corps volunteer Christine Carcano kept her first rape secret from the agency in 2011 until chronic illness forced her to travel to Peru’s capital for medical tests that determined she was pregnant from the attack.

Fellow volunteer Mary Kate Shannon kept the Peace Corps in the dark about her second rape in Peru in 2012 because she didn’t want to relive the criminal trial that landed her first attacker in prison for 28 years.
Carcano, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, and Shannon are among many Peace Corps volunteers who initially kept rapes and sexual attacks quiet – 18 months after the celebrated agency, the brainchild of John F. Kennedy, began top-to-bottom changes to bolster protection for volunteers and make it easier for victims to step forward.

Peace Corps volunteers officially reported at least 225 rapes and 856 sexual assaults during the decade ending in 2012, according to annual reports to Congress.

But volunteers privately acknowledge far more attacks. Only half of the 23 volunteers who privately reported being raped last year, for example, officially reported those attacks to higher ups, according to confidential surveys of returning volunteers.

Nor did volunteers officially report 71 percent of 801 other sexual assaults that came to light in the survey.
“Volunteers are remaining silent despite the changes,” says Karestan Koenen, a trauma psychology scholar at Columbia who has been studying the impact of Peace Corps reforms.

Volunteers “are afraid of being sent home or losing confidentiality,” adds Koenen, who was raped in the African nation of Niger during Peace Corps service in 1991.

Mandate for change
The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act was enacted in 2011 after volunteers told Congress harrowing accounts of sexual assaults overseas compounded by bureaucratic neglect or insensitivity at home.
The Peace Corps says it has made “considerable progress” implementing provisions named for a 24-year-old volunteer killed in Benin after reporting that a local Peace Corps hire was abusing children at a school.

Rape victims now have one full-time advocate at headquarters, with two more to be hired. A dozen other changes are in progress, overhauling a bureaucracy that critics claimed had sometimes put good relations with host countries ahead of victims or aggressive prosecution of attackers.

Nearly 70 current or returned volunteers have received support over the past 23 months from Peace Corps’ victim advocate Kellie Greene following a rape or attempted rape.

“Peace Corps has come a long way in a short amount of time,” says Greene, who became a nationally known victims’ advocate after being raped in Florida in 1994.

“We all know silence around this crime is really what allows it to continue,” Greene says. “So for Peace Corps to stand up and say we’re going to do better allows our volunteers to stand up.”

Volunteers in seven countries already have anonymous access to a 24-hour hotline for sexual assault victims that is scheduled to go global in September. Arrangements are underway, as well, to enable volunteers to confidentially report sexual assaults. The Peace Corps is paying attorney fees and court costs for volunteers who choose to help local authorities prosecute their attackers.

The agency has made “substantial progress over the last few years in establishing new policies and practices that reflect our strong commitment to reducing risks for our volunteers and responding effectively and compassionately to those who are victims of sexual assault,” says Shira Kramer, Peace Corps spokeswoman.

The goal remains to “further enhance the safety and security of Peace Corps volunteers, which continues to be our highest priority.”

Much left to do
But a coalition of former volunteers who suffered sexual assaults before the changes insist the agency “has a significant amount of work left to do.” One in eight volunteers “reported being sexually assaulted in 2012 – a jump in sexual assault rates from previous years,” said First Response Action.

“People expect more from an agency built on good will,” says Casey Frazee, a victim of sexual assault during Peace Corps service in South Africa in 2009 and founder of First Response Action.

It wasn’t until Carcano got to Lima more than two weeks after the rape by the cousin of her host mother in Peru in 2011 that the Texan broke down with the truth.

“I couldn’t hold it in any longer,” recalls Carcano, now 24. “I told them what happened.”
Carcano praises the support that she received from Peace Corps staff who implemented a victim-centered response that drew upon enhanced sensitivity training for staff and escorted medical evacuations for victims who returned to the United States.

“I do wish I had been open with them from the start,” Carcano says now. “If I had known they would be so comforting, it would have helped me report it sooner.”

Carcano returned to the United States for 45 days of psychological counseling. She ended the pregnancy with an abortion paid for by the family of a fellow volunteer. The Peace Corps has been barred since 1979 from covering abortions for volunteers.

Carcano returned to a new location in Peru in 2012 – only to be raped again in an attack that ended her long-planned Peace Corps’ service.

For Shannon, 27, a native of Front Royal, Va., the demands of her first rape trial in Peru made her decide to keep the second rape secret. It was only after she mentioned the second attack during long-distance telephone counseling for the first attack that Peace Corps officials became aware of the second.

“I was abruptly removed from my site and sent back to Washington for medical care,” recalls Shannon, a graduate of Shepherd University in West Virginia who enlisted despite cerebral palsy.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, has proposed legislation to provide federal health insurance coverage for abortions for Peace Corps volunteers in cases of rape, incest and the health of the mother. Full time Peace Corps staff, armed forces personnel and other federal employees already have that protection.

Volunteers “provide a valuable public service despite inherent risks,” Lautenberg says. “It is unacceptable that their own country restricts their access to care.”

Loved being a volunteer
The Peace Corps, which has ended operations in 17 countries over the past decade due to security concerns, has dispersed nearly 8,100 volunteers to hundreds of remote locations in 76 countries in 2013 to answer President Kennedy’s clarion call to help poor countries develop, help foreigners understand 
Americans and help Americans understand foreigners.

The volunteers, the vast majority young, single women in their 20s, “are not, for all relevant purposes, U.S. government employees” or diplomatic personnel entitled to protection by State Department security, the Peace Corps stipulated in a 2012 memo of understanding with the State Department’s bureau of diplomatic security.

As a result, Peace Corps volunteers rely on local police to arrest and prosecute attackers – an unpredictable process that often fails to serve as a deterrent against future attacks.

Peace Corps statistics for the three-year period ending in 2011, for example, show only 45 out of every 100 rapes, attempted rapes or major sexual assaults were reported to local police. Of the reported attacks, only 31 cases were prosecuted and only 17 resulted in convictions.

Yet despite the risks, many Peace Corps cherish their service, usually 27 months on a living allowance followed by a $7,425 transition payment.

“I was determined to go back to Peru after the first attack,” recalls Carcano, an HIV social research assistant at the University of North Carolina’s division of infectious diseases with plans to attend medical school. “I loved being a volunteer.”

Adds Shannon, who also suffered two rapes in Peru: “It’s bittersweet for me. But I wouldn’t take back my Peace Corps’ experience for anything.” 

Stewart M. Powell is a reporter in the Hearst Newspapers Washington Bureau.

No comments:

Post a Comment