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Friday
Aug022013

Critics Give Peace Corps a 'C' on Sex Assault Response

Getty Images/PeaceCorps[dot]gov(NEW YORK) -- More than a year and a half since a law was passed to protect Peace Corps whistleblowers and improve the treatment of its volunteers who fall victim to violence and sexual assault while serving abroad, a new report claims that the Peace Corps has made progress but has not yet met the standards set in the law.

The report, issued this week by First Response Action, a victims' advocacy group that played a large part in applying pressure to the government to reform the agency, assigned an overall "C" letter grade for the implementation of the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in November 2011 after being passed unanimously by Congress.

The law requires that the Peace Corps improves the training of volunteers to reduce sexual assault risk, trains staff on treatment of victims, protects whistleblowers, and hires victims' advocates for each region the agency serves, among other things.

In its report, FRA wrote that the group "applauds Peace Corps' progress in a few key areas" but that "the reality remains, however, that the agency has a significant amount of work left to implement the Kate Puzey Act and must act with far greater urgency."

However, according to Peace Corps spokeswoman Shira Kramer, the agency has developed a Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program that "not only meets but exceeds the requirements of the legislation."

"Peace Corps has worked with leading experts to develop a comprehensive Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program, which includes more than 30 policy changes; extensive sexual assault risk reduction and response training for both volunteers and staff; and new, clearly defined procedures for mitigating and responding to sexual assault – all of which encourage volunteers to report incidents to the agency and seek our support," Kramer told ABC News.

Kramer said that on Sept. 1, "critical elements" of that program will go into effect and that the Peace Corps will "near full implementation" of the Puzey Act.

Kramer also told ABC News that in the time since the law was enacted, the Peace Corps has been doing its "due diligence" by consulting with top experts from the field and collaborating with groups like the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network as it works to implement the law.

"It's important that what we're implementing is effective and incorporates the best practices from these top experts to make sure that it's impactful," Kramer said.

The Kate Puzey Act was named for a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Georgia, who was murdered in Benin in 2009 after telling superiors she believed a fellow Peace Corps employee was molesting female students.

In an investigation that aired on 20/20 in January 2011, ABC News told the story of Kate's murder and examined what critics say has been a "blame-the-victim" culture within the Peace Corps when volunteers are assaulted or attempt to report problems.

More than two years since Puzey's death, however, the FRA report says Peace Corps has "moved very slowly in creating a new whistleblower protection program."

"Unfortunately, Peace Corps has made little progress in getting such a program off the ground, which is particularly troubling given that Ms. Puzey was murdered because the agency failed to protect her identity after she reported that a Peace Corps contractor had been sexually assaulting young women in the school where Ms. Puzey taught," the group wrote in its report.

Kramer told ABC News that the agency's whistleblower policy is in effect, has been updated recently to strengthen it further, and that volunteers and staff have been trained on the policy.

"This policy states that when volunteers make an allegation of wrongdoing, first and foremost their safety must be protected, concerns must be given serious consideration, and retaliation of any kind is strictly forbidden," Kramer said.

The founder of FRA, Casey Frazee, is a former Peace Corps volunteer who was sexually assaulted in South Africa in 2009 and was also featured in the 2011 ABC News investigation, when she told ABC News that victims were treated in an insensitive way upon reporting their sexual assault.

"There isn't a point person or an advocate or someone who is managing the case," she told ABC News at the time.

In the FRA's report, the group highlighted much of the progress Peace Corps has made in this regard, including the agency's creation of an Office of Victim Advocacy to provide support to volunteers who have been sexually assaulted, as well as the option for those volunteers to be medically evacuated from their post.

But FRA's report also alleged that not all Peace Corps Country Directors have trained their staff on sexual assault issues as required by the law.

"In the countries where Peace Corps operates, first responders might be Peace Corps staff," Frazee said. "So having staff that are trained and confident in the issue is so critical in survivors getting the care that they need."

Kramer said all of its first responders will have been trained on the Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program by September 1, and that its entire staff will be fully trained by the end of the year.

"That's a commitment the agency has previously made and intends to follow through on," she said.

"The health, safety and security of our volunteers is our highest priority and they're driving every aspect of our reform efforts," Kramer said.

Frazee told ABC News that the report's "C" grade was based on the fact that the full implementation "hasn't happened to date."

"It's a culture shift and it will take time and we recognize that," Frazee said. "Certainly we applaud the progress that Peace Corps has made so far. Part of our work is to make sure that's always improving."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio