Whistleblower: Peace Corps Ignored and Then Blamed Sexual Assault Victims
Volunteers dedicate two years to serving others, but if they are sexually assaulted, one insider says, they are blamed, shamed, and face removal from the program.
Internal Peace Corps documents and emails obtained by The Daily Beast from Congress indicate an appalling culture within the agency: where sexual assault victims stationed abroad on behalf of America are blamed; assailants are allegedly permitted to walk free without consequence; and the organization fails to fully support the Americans it posts abroad.
Following the sexual assault of a Peace Corps volunteer in 2014, Peace Corps clinical psychologist Dr. Kris Morris issued behind-the-scenes “guidelines.” The message: Volunteers who continue to need help following a sexual assault are not Peace Corps material.
“Demonstration of a need for ongoing therapy is an indication that she is not a good fit for Peace Corps Service,” Morris wrote in a September 2014 email. Morris also said that a “maximum of 4-6 sessions” of counseling abroad would be permitted for the victim once she returned to her post following a medical evacuation.
In 2009 a young Peace Corps volunteer named Kate Puzey was murdered. Someone slit her throat in Benin after she blew the whistle on a Peace Corps employee who she believed was molesting young women. In response, Congress passed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act in 2011, which forced changes within the organization.
“The law was passed to get the Peace Corps to take care of Peace Corps Volunteers that were assaulted, rather than to cover up and hide… They haven’t gotten to that place yet. They find reasons not to help victims rather than find reasons to support them,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), who was involved in designing the bill in Congress, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
One of the changes that the new law compelled was the creation of an Office of Victim Advocacy, to assist volunteers who are attacked while stationed abroad. Kellie Greene, an advocate with 20 years experience in the field of victim services, was chosen as the office’s first director.
This month, Greene was fired—technically, put on a 120-day suspension without pay—by the Peace Corps. Internal conversations with victims show that she was an empathetic, well-liked advocate who pressed hard for internal change in the way the organization dealt with sexual assault—sometimes in ways that irked other parts of the bureaucracy.
She’s now filed two complaints about the Peace Corps, one for whistleblower reprisal, and another regarding allegations that the Peace Corps engaged in prohibited practices.
The complaints and supporting documents, obtained from Congress, allege a flawed internal culture from within the Peace Corps, which time after time has dropped the ball on responding to sexual assault.
The Peace Corps, which has nearly 7,000 volunteers and trainees deployed throughout the world, are supposed to be the ultimate do-gooders and ambassadors of American benevolence. And allegations of indifference do not mean total indifference.
But these sordid allegations of callousness from the officials in the organization may now undermine the agency’s finely polished image—and the good work that volunteers do throughout the world.
“The agency needs to implement a system of accountability for staff who fail to follow the policies and procedures related to sexual assault and other crimes. Currently, there is no system in place to address this, so staff are not able to learn from mistakes nor is the agency able to track why policy and procedures are not being followed,” Greene told The Daily Beast.
In terms of victim-blaming, Greene writes, “staff continually say that a Volunteer ‘cannot keep themselves safe,’ ‘has behavior issues,’ ‘failed to follow Peace Corps safety and security guidance,’ and ‘she/he is not a good Volunteer’” following an assault.
The Peace Corps denied that such a culture exists. “A key component of our reform efforts has been focused on ensuring that our response to sexual assault is patient-centered and informed by best practices,” Peace Corps spokesman Kevin Harris said.
Greene alleges that volunteers who “report drinking alcohol, being intoxicated and/or blacking out prior to being assaulted” are placed in a psychiatric ward. One volunteer reportedly told Greene that, after she was medically evacuated following an assault, therapists at the hospital never talked to her about the sexual assault itself—but did say that Peace Corps officials had told them she had a drinking problem.
“Each case is considered individually, and the decision to hospitalize a volunteer who has been assaulted is not dependent on their use of alcohol,” Harris said.
Other incidents alleged in Greene’s complaint and supporting documents show a staggering lack of empathy for victims of sexual assault. In one instance, a volunteer filed a complaint against a Peace Corps victim’s advocate, Jamie Friedman.
Friedman allegedly “was taking pictures of where we were staying at the guest house and posting them to her friends through texts, saying that she was in [country redacted] for a case,” a volunteer complained to the Peace Corps Office of Inspector General. The behavior “violated my privacy and confidentiality,” the volunteer wrote in her complaint, a copy of which was read by The Daily Beast.
In a handwritten note by Greene on top of a copy of the volunteer’s complaint, Greene wrote, “I met w/Jame on 4/20/15 to discuss… explained the importance of not appearing to be excited and working w/staff to limit appearance of being a tourist… not reprimanding her.”
“Ms. Friedman did not engage in any wrongdoing,” Harris, the spokesman, said. “Peace Corps is aware of this complaint and there is no validity to the claims made.”
In another case, a volunteer was allegedly physically assaulted after being sexually assaulted. She had declined a medical evacuation following the sexual assault, but following the physical assault changed her mind.
“She stated that she was told she had to wait 30 days to see if she developed PTSD before she could be considered for a medevac,” according to a report by Greene, in an email read by The Daily Beast.
In separate incident, when Greene wrote other Peace Corps officials in August 2014 to request more counseling for a volunteer, she was criticized for not going through “proper channels.” Later, a Peace Corps Medical Officer responded that more counseling was not necessary because the victim had only mentioned sexual assault during her counseling once.
“She mention[ed] just one time in the first session the [sexual assault] and cat calls, but no more and [her psychologist] thinks the problem is the [volunteer’s] essential personality that stays intact usually even with therapy,” wrote Ines Maradiaga, a Peace Corps Medical Officer, in an email attached to Greene’s complaint, noting that the volunteer has a “background of anxiety and emotional liability.”
“I’m sure [more counseling] will make no difference in her behavior,” Maradiaga added. The medical officer also noted that the volunteer had turned down some previous offers of counseling.
The Peace Corps contends there is no policy restricting sexual assault victims to four to six counseling sessions after a volunteer returns from medical evacuation.
“Research shows that evidence supported treatments for trauma are highly effective in 10-12 sessions. However, if additional counseling is medically indicated, then it is provided to Volunteers,” said Harris, although he could not cite the specific research. “Peace Corps does not limit the number of counseling sessions that an individual can receive to a specific number of sessions.”
But while it is not policy, internal documents show it is practice: On numerous occasions those numbers are cited as the limit the organization will provide.
“Is this really what we are going to tell this Volunteer?” Greene asked in September 2014, responding to the above-mentioned email written by Peace Corps clinical psychologist Dr. Kris Morris, which limited in-country counseling support to four to six sessions. “These parameters will most likely cause her to not reach out to Peace Corps for assistance out of fear of being sent home.”
Another Peace Corps volunteer, based in Mexico, wrote to Greene in July 2014, expressing this exact concern: that if she asked for help, she would be viewed as unfit for service.
“I was told by my current counselor that Peace Corps does not like to approve more than 6 sessions for a volunteer. Although my incident has passed, I have been dealing with sexually-related comments nearly daily… I’m concerned that… if I am unable to adjust to this sort of environment within the 6 counseling sessions, that I won’t be able to receive support… I’m afraid they will tell me that I am not integrating or not fit to be a volunteer and will send me home.”
In her complaint against the Peace Corps’ policies and actions, Greene says that the agency fails to administratively separate volunteers who violate its sexual misconduct policy.
“[The Peace Corps] allows volunteers who have been found in violation of the Peace Corps sexual assault misconduct policy to resign in lieu of being administratively separated,” Greene writes.
Bonnie Scott, a recent Peace Corps volunteer in Albania, gave The Daily Beast one example of this practice. She claims she learned that a top Peace Corps employee in country had allegedly sexually assaulted host country nationals. After an investigation of the allegations, she claims, the official was allowed to resign his post.
The Peace Corps denies that this is permissible. “The Peace Corps policy does not allow a volunteer found to have engaged in sexual misconduct to resign in lieu of administrative separation,” Harris said.
Greene had been head of the Office of Victim Advocacy for under three years before the Peace Corps suspended her for allegedly creating a hostile work environment, according to Greene’s complaint. Greene was also accused of micromanaging cases and berating staff members.
Greene contended the nature of the Office of Victim Advocacy’s mission—to speak for sexual assault victims—can lead to tensions with other units.
“Victim advocacy is not adversarial in nature. However, for those who do not understand or see value in victim advocacy, it can be viewed as adversarial. That is part of the challenge for OVA at Peace Corps,” Greene told The Daily Beast. “Healthy multidisciplinary response teams have a full understanding and respect for the roles and responsibilities of the other team members. This does not exist at the Peace Corps.”
The Peace Corps declined to address Greene’s case, stating that they are prohibited by law from commenting specifically on a personnel matter.
According to emails obtained by The Daily Beast, Greene regularly rocked the boat, challenging Peace Corps officials internally and criticizing sexual assault policies.
As a result her office was regularly excluded from meetings and planning efforts, she alleged. In fact, one day after sending an email complaining about her exclusion from a regular meeting, Greene was relieved of her position as director of the Office of Victim Advocacy in April 2015, and ultimately suspended without pay in November.
“The Agency frequently accused [Greene and her office] of creating problems when [they] advocated for volunteers,” Greene alleges in a complaint.
But the Peace Corps also categorically denies that Greene’s office was ever regularly excluded from meetings.
“This allegation is false. The entire Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response team meets each week to review pending decisions and prioritize actions. The OVA is a standing member of that team and contributes to all decision conversations,” Harris said. “As a member, the OVA representative has the opportunity to comment in writing or verbally to any issue.”
Ultimately, said Congressman Poe, Greene’s firing “looks very sinister… based on what I know… She… may have asked too many questions.”
The Peace Corps provides assistance to countries all over the word, and connects their cultures with America’s. It is a concern for many involved in the Peace Corps community that the sexual assault issue will overshadow the good work that they do.
“The Peace Corps has shortcomings that I believe the organization is actively trying to address and I believe that the volunteers and community administrators at the ground level are creating sustainable projects that have lasting impacts on the communities they serve,” said the former volunteer. “Volunteers should be concerned with building a framework for peace and understanding, not fighting through bureaucratic red tape because of limited medical resources and poor messaging.”
The Peace Corps says it has taken serious steps to address the issue of sexual assault since the Kate Puzey Act was passed into law in 2011.
“In total these efforts demonstrate our commitment to building a culture that does not in any way blame victims or retaliate against them for speaking out, but rather an agency that continues to make great strides in reaching out to victims of sexual assault and ensuring they are receiving the care they deserve,” Harris said. “We are proud of our significant efforts to date, which include more than 30 policy changes, and we continue to assess areas where our response can be made stronger.”
It appears that there is much work to do—if the stories describe above prove true.
“We passed legislation to have the Peace Corps become more sensitive to the plight of the volunteers who are assaulted overseas, and part of that is to have an advocate to express the concern of peace corps volunteers,” Rep. Ted Poe said. “The Peace Corps, in some cases, seems to be indifferent to the plight of Peace Corps volunteers who find themselves victim to assault.”