Nicole Jacobson was far from home and feeling alone, placed by the Peace Corps in a remote village in Zambia with a host father who had five wives and a disturbing interest in the young American volunteer.
The man routinely leered at her while touching himself, Jacobson said. He grabbed and groped her, once bursting into her hut and pushing her up against the wall. When she called Peace Corps staff to report him, Jacobson said, they repeatedly dismissed her concerns.
“According to them, I just didn't understand the situation,” she said, adding that one Peace Corps staff member told her, “It just means he likes you.” Jacobson said staff left her there for more than a year before pulling her from the site in 2018.
She and other volunteers who shared their experiences this year in a USA TODAY investigation worry officials are about to place more volunteers at risk as the Peace Corps rushes to reestablish volunteers abroad after service was shut down in March 2020.
The agency is poised to send a new class of recruits into the field as soon as January, but an outside review ordered in response to USA TODAY’s investigation found the agency lacks a comprehensive plan to prevent them from being sexually assaulted.
The Sexual Assault Advisory Council, a panel of specialists tapped by the Peace Corps, recommended the agency hire a violence prevention specialist and called for “a new culture that prioritizes prevention as well as response, strengthens accountability and transparency, and conducts all sexual assault programming using trauma-informed approaches.”
USA TODAY’s investigation found forcible sexual assaults and rapes disclosed by volunteers at the end of their service nearly doubled from 2015 to 2019. The agency knowingly placed volunteers in dangerous situations and inflicted more trauma by bungling its response to volunteer assaults, USA TODAY found.
In the months since, Peace Corps officials pledged a litany of reforms and hired a consultant to evaluate the structure of its sexual assault program – a separate assessment from the council’s review.
Carol Spahn, the agency's chief executive, said in a statement that she and other agency leaders are committed to doing “everything we can to prevent sexual violence and to provide a compassionate response when it does occur.” She and other agency officials declined repeated interview requests.
In the statement, they said staff would analyze the council's recommendations and release a formal response and plan in early 2022. Agency officials said they've made changes to enhance volunteer safety.
Many of USA TODAY’s findings and the recommendations from the council’s review – as well as the pledges to fix the shortfalls – mirror those that have been raised before, fueling skepticism among volunteers such as Jacobson that Peace Corps officials are serious about revamping the storied institution.
“I just think it's a lot of talk,” Jacobson said.
“They're kind of trying to do whatever the bare minimum is to make the story go away and to make the exposure go away,” said former volunteer Amanda Moses, who was sexually assaulted in Kyrgyzstan in 2017 on a bus where another volunteer had previously reported being sexually assaulted. “It's like pulling teeth to get one thing, one little initiative.”
Even though the council directed the agency to “improve transparency and communication,” Peace Corps officials declined to provide details to USA TODAY about the fixes it promised, delaying and denying requests for information and referring questions to the agency’s Freedom of Information Act Office.
Spahn pledged increased transparency after USA TODAY’s investigation.
Each year, the Peace Corps, a federal agency, deploys thousands of Americans, mostly young women, around the globe. The agency is tasked with vetting where those volunteers live and work during their two years of service, providing medical care and supporting those who are victims of crimes.
USA TODAY revealed in its investigation that 44% of women who finished service in 2019 said they were sexually assaulted in some way, ranging from groping to rape. The analysis found that reporting rates for forcible sexual assault and rape have remained relatively stagnant in recent years, indicating that volunteers are being assaulted more frequently – and not just more likely to report what happened.
A dozen former volunteers who served from 2016 to 2020 shared their experiences with USA TODAY. Reporters corroborated many of their accounts with agency records, contemporaneous messages and interviews with fellow volunteers.
One described being sexually assaulted by a Peace Corps-selected doctor in Ecuador whom another volunteer had reported for inappropriate behavior. Another woman told USA TODAY Peace Corps officials fabricated details in official documents after she reported being raped while serving in Guatemala. She said they wrote that she had initially consented to sexual contact with her attacker. A third, Fellina Fucci, said that after a man in her Samoan village raped her, a Peace Corps safety and security manager questioned her memory, chastised her for not using a rape whistle during the attack and told her the assailant was a friend of his who would probably gossip about her.
“I spent more time during my trauma therapy discussing the Peace Corps staff’s response to my assault rather than the assault itself,” Fucci said.
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‘A betrayal of the highest order’
In the months since USA TODAY’s report, the agency said it created staff positions in each country to ensure crimes are documented and reviewed before volunteers are placed; improved screening and training of host families and colleagues; and required in-country staff to conduct formal case reviews of every assault. The agency will allow volunteers to review summaries of their crime reports – after several women told USA TODAY they found inaccuracies in official records.
Spahn asked the agency’s inspector general to investigate what happened in the cases highlighted by USA TODAY. In a report released this month, the inspector general said investigators had finished reviewing one woman’s case. They did not find evidence staff violated policies but found errors in how the sexual assault was documented. The report said reviews of the other cases are ongoing.
After receiving inquiries from USA TODAY, agency officials said they referred an additional case for investigation: Jacobson's.
“There’s no excuse for inaction over the years,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., the only former Peace Corps volunteer serving in Congress. Garamendi, who said he anticipates agency leaders will make the necessary changes, pushes legislation that would increase the agency’s funding and expand its volunteer ranks.
At a hearing on the bill in September, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., questioned any such move until the agency does more to protect volunteers.
“It’s abundantly clear that the Peace Corps has a systemic problem regarding assault,” he said after entering USA TODAY’s investigation into the congressional record. “It's disgusting to read about it. I would not want my daughters to go to the Peace Corps, I'm going to tell you that right now. It is a betrayal of the highest order.”
The agency is moving forward with plans to send volunteers back into the field and invited recruits to begin service in five countries with start dates ranging from January to March “so long as conditions allow,” the Peace Corps said in a newsletter this month. The countries are Belize, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Zambia, and the agency plans to add more in 2022.
If the timeline holds, the Peace Corps will deploy volunteers without having resolved numerous safety recommendations from its inspector general, completed the review of its sexual assault program or finished weighing the council’s directives – among other fixes.
Sue Castle, whose son died after receiving inadequate medical care from a Peace Corps doctor while volunteering in China in 2013, said the COVID-19 shutdown has been a “perfect opportunity” for the agency to revamp its sexual assault policies but she does not think that’s happened. She called it “irresponsible” for the agency to redeploy volunteers.
At least once a year, Castle travels to Washington to meet with lawmakers and agency officials about improvements at the agency. In 2018, Congress passed a law named after her son Nick that enhanced medical care for volunteers and expanded on legislation pertaining to sexual assault.
She said it was heartbreaking to read the accounts shared by USA TODAY.
“It's very frustrating for me. My son, it was poor medical care. Other people, it's sexual assault,” she said. “They need to do better, and they can do better. I don't know why they don't.”
Recurring concerns left unaddressed
Before last month, the agency’s Sexual Assault Advisory Council, which is made up of nearly a dozen experts in violence prevention and response as well as former volunteers, had not issued a public report in five years.
Spahn, in response to USA TODAY’s investigation, asked the council to examine whether the agency had implemented recommendations by prior councils since 2015.
The resulting report in its top conclusions highlights the lack of a comprehensive sexual assault prevention plan – a deficiency the council first flagged in 2015.
At the time, the Peace Corps developed a flow chart that directs staff in each country to develop policies for home and work site selection as well as “crime action plans” where assault rates are high.
In its most recent report, the council said relying on crime action plans for each country is not enough. It recommended the Peace Corps set measurable goals for success, hone a strategy that spans every level of the agency and develop a global core training for volunteer host families and co-workers that “emphasizes unwanted attention, violence prevention, and bystander intervention.”
The panel found staffers don't do enough to support volunteers after they are assaulted, echoing USA TODAY’s findings.
For example, Peace Corps medical officers are required to complete a 90-minute online training session on conducting sexual assault exams that is “inadequate” and “minimally relevant,” the group said. Addressing that shortfall – which the council said it also flagged in 2015, 2019 and 2020 – is “critical to ensure the safety and well-being of sexual assault survivors,” the council concluded.
The council said all Peace Corps staff should be trained annually in trauma-informed responses to sexual assault. Peace Corps officials told USA TODAY the agency is expanding training of medical and other staff.
The council’s chair, Elizabeth Arlotti-Parish, who works as a senior adviser at Jhpiego, a global health care nonprofit affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, declined interview requests and referred inquiries to the Peace Corps.
Kellie Greene, who was hired by the Peace Corps nearly a decade ago to be its first victim advocate, said many problems identified in the new advisory council report have been raised before, including by her.
Greene, who left the agency in 2016 after filing a whistleblower complaint alleging the Peace Corps wasn’t doing enough to protect volunteers, said inaction has led to unnecessary volunteer trauma.
“As the Peace Corps prepares to return volunteers to the field, they must focus on how to prevent sexual assaults and demonstrate loyalty towards volunteers,” she said. “I know the Peace Corps has the ability to be a leader in the field of sexual assault. It can do better and must.”
A ‘lack of transparency’
As the agency analyzes the new recommendations, it has yet to close out more than a dozen others from the Peace Corps inspector general that were issued years ago. They include directives – one dating to 2013 – designed to prevent placing volunteers in known danger, to ensure adequate medical staffing and to track staff training on sexual assault.
Peace Corps officials said they are working to address the outstanding recommendations. They said some cannot be resolved until volunteers return to the field but didn’t say which and declined to explain what remains to be done.
On multiple fronts, the Peace Corps declined to provide information that would provide a deeper understanding of sexual assaults experienced by volunteers and what the agency is doing to address the problem.
It declined to provide details or documentation backing up claims that it has strengthened numerous policies to protect volunteers and referred requests to the Freedom of Information Act office.
The agency has yet to release full copies of the advisory council’s reports from 2017 through 2020. In copies provided to USA TODAY, the agency redacted every recommendation the council made.
The Peace Corps contended the agency can withhold the information under the Freedom of Information Act because it is part of a “deliberative process.” “It would only serve to mislead the public if an agency provides detailed information that is still under development and subject to change,” the agency said.
USA TODAY continues to push for access to the information.
Glenn Blumhorst, president and CEO of the National Peace Corps Association, which represents up to 250,000 returned volunteers, said the organization “encouraged Peace Corps leadership to be more forthcoming” about what it’s doing to better protect volunteers.
“I think one of our roles is to do our best to try to hold Peace Corps accountable,” he said in an interview. "It is sometimes challenging, given the lack of transparency and the kind of cyclical nature of Peace Corps leadership and this council itself even.”
Former volunteer Emma Tremblay, who reported being sexually assaulted by a doctor whom a previous volunteer had reported for inappropriate behavior, said it’s long past time to hold the agency accountable.
Before ending her service in Ecuador in 2019, Tremblay started an Instagram account where she shares stories of volunteers disillusioned with the agency. In recent months, she and others organized town halls for former volunteers and others concerned by the agency’s shortfalls.
“What remains to be seen,” Tremblay said, “is whether the Peace Corps holds itself accountable to volunteers this time.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sexual assault in Peace Corps: Review identifies agency failures