Peace Corps Should Improve Sexual Assault Prevention, Special Counsel Says

The Peace Corps has made progress in its handling of sexual assault and misconduct affecting overseas volunteers, but the agency has insufficiently provided the clarity and training needed to mitigate the long-standing problem.

So concluded the Office of Special Counsel in reviewing an agency inspector general report based on a whistleblower complaint. The special counsel sent its review of the IG report to President Trump, the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Peace Corp’s internal probe was sought by OSC after a complaint from Kellie Greene, the first and former director of the Peace Corps Office of Victim Advocacy.  She alleged that the agency failed to take appropriate action against volunteers who engaged in sexual misconduct; did not train host families and co-workers in prevention of sexual assault; failed to take action to protect volunteers when they travel; neglected to provide adequate counseling services to volunteers who are sexually assaulted; and failed to update sexual assault case data with the Office of Victim Advocacy.

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The Peace Corps’ subsequent report on its efforts, however, did not satisfy Special Counsel Henry Kerner. “I have determined that while the report contains the information required by statute, some of the findings are not reasonable,” Kerner wrote to Trump.  “I encourage the Peace Corps to establish clear, consistent, and effective policies to ensure the prevention of sexual assault and other crimes against volunteers, timely responses to safety risks, and the provision of adequate counseling services to volunteers who are sexually assaulted during their service.”

The need to protect Americans serving abroad from rape or harassment from colleagues or locals has for years generated conflict between inspector general investigations of incidents and the agency’s need to protect employee privacy. The agency’s inspector general has been generally active on reducing risk of sexual assault among volunteers.

OSC determined that while the Peace Corps IG had reported that the agency was taking steps such as providing better counseling, there were “shortcomings” in the report. “The report confirmed that volunteers who have reportedly engaged in sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, have been allowed to resign or interrupt service without any documentation in their volunteer records,” Kerner wrote.  “This has resulted in at least one case in which the Peace Corps rehired a volunteer who had been previously accused of sexual assault.”

He said that case called into question the report’s conclusion that no update of applicant screening policies is needed. “While the Peace Corps cannot prevent volunteers from ending their service while under investigation, the Peace Corps should note in the volunteer records that an individual resigned while under investigation for sexual misconduct,” he wrote.

On the issue of increasing training, the report “reflects that out of the 781 reports of volunteer sexual assault between 2011 and 2014, 16 percent of the assaults were allegedly committed by a host family member or co-worker,” Kerner wrote.  “Given these facts, OSC finds it unreasonable to conclude that training would provide no additional value in the prevention of sexual assault, even if it is not required by law.”

 The Peace Corps did not have a comment by publication time. 

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