Family of Murdered Peace Corps Volunteer Mounts Candlelight Vigil On Capitol Steps

PHOTO Kate Puzey, a Peace Corps volunteer from Atlanta, Georgia, was killed in Benin, Africa, in March 2009. Her accused killer, now in prison and charged with murder, is a former fellow Peace Corps employee.
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The second anniversary of the tragic murder of a Peace Corps volunteer will be marked by a candlelight vigil on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Friday, March 11. The family of Kate Puzey, a 24-year-old from Atlanta who was murdered in Benin, West Africa in 2009, organized the event in hopes that the Peace Corps will mark its own 50th anniversary by offering greater protection to whistleblowers.

"It was originally devastating to discover that there were no whistleblower policies in place prior to our daughter's death and to see Peace Corps' lack of response to us as a grieving family," said Kate's mother Lois Puzey, who will be meeting with members of Congress on Thursday and Friday.

At Friday's vigil, participants will light 25 candles to honor all the volunteers who've been murdered while serving overseas since the organization was founded in 1961.

The vigil will also honor volunteers who have survived sexual assaults. Members of Congress and activists who hope to improve the Corps' response to sexual assaults against volunteers will be on the Capitol steps for the 6:30 p.m. event. At the end of the month, Congress will hold hearings about sexual assaults against Peace Corps volunteers.

The Puzeys were interviewed by ABC News "20/20" for a January report on Kate Puzey's murder. Kate had written an email to Benin's Peace Corps headquarters reporting that a fellow Peace Corps employee, a local man who taught in the same village as she, had raped some of her seventh-grade students, and suggesting that the Peace Corps take action.

Kate's parents told ABC News that the Peace Corps failed to protect their daughter, and that they suspect her email was shown to the brother of the man she reported, who worked at Benin headquarters. Two weeks after she sent the email, Kate was found with her throat slit. The man she reported, Constant Bio, is the prime suspect. Both he and his brother are being held by local authorities as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. Bio has maintained that he is innocent.

The Peace Corps says that the agency will not comment on Kate Puzey's case until Bio's investigation and prosecution, overseen by the Benin government, is complete.

Two weeks after Kate's death in March 2009, the Peace Corps drafted a policy designed to protect the confidentiality of volunteers reporting sensitive information.

Kate's mother Lois Puzey said she felt the policy was "too little too late." She said that although she is happy the policy is in place, it is tragic that it was not there to protect her daughter.

"However, things have improved within the last year with new Peace Corps leadership who seem really committed to finally solving these problems," she added. "We hope and expect that they will continue to work with us to see that legislation is passed to protect future volunteers and support victims of violence."

The policy to protect volunteers' confidentiality when reporting sensitive information was put into practice two weeks after Kate's death, according to a Peace Corps official. It was formally issued as part of the Peace Corps manual, coded as Manual Section 271, on January 14, 2011, the same day as the 20/20 report.

A Peace Corps official said that the formal coded policy was ready to be entered into the manual on January 10, and that the timing was not linked in any way to the 20/20 broadcast. "These processes take time to move through various offices and the policy review board. Motions were set in place long before 20/20," the Peace Corps official said.

As part of the "20/20" report, ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross also interviewed six former Peace Corps volunteers who were raped or sexually assaulted while serving as volunteers. Five of the six were extremely unhappy with how Peace Corps treated them, saying they even felt blamed by the organization for "bringing on" the attacks.

In the wake of ABC News' report, the House Foreign Affairs committee scheduled hearings on the issue of how Peace Corps handles victims of sexual assault and rape.

The hearings are scheduled for March 30 and 31.

In the weeks following the "20/20" report, Peace Corps posted two documents on its website regarding the organization's response to sexual assault.

The first was a "Commitment" to volunteer victims of sexual assault pledging compassion, legal support, and possibilities for the victim to continue his or her volunteer service. Peace Corps obtained input on the document in December 2010 from members of the volunteer sexual assault survivor support group First Response Action, whose founder Casey Frazee was interviewed in the "20/20" report.

"Peace Corps is committed to providing a compassionate and supportive response to all Volunteers who have been sexually assaulted," reads the "Commitment." The document will be added to the Volunteer Handbook next year.

"Peace Corps is now listening to returned volunteers, especially after the '20/20' report, and acknowledging that this is an issue," said Frazee. "It's definitely a step in the right direction."

Jessica Smochek, who was interviewed by ABC News "20/20" about how she was gang-raped as a volunteer in Bangladesh, met with Peace Corps officials in December along with Frazee. Smochek said she was happy that the organization was working on drafting the "Commitment" to victims of sexual assault. She said she is disappointed, however, at the vagueness of the language of the pledges. She said she is also disappointed that Peace Corps did not reach out to experts in the field of trauma and treatment of sexual assault victims before drafting the Commitment document. A spokesperson for the Peace Corps says the organization did, in fact, consult such experts.

The second document is a fact sheet on sexual assault in the Peace Corps that cites figures showing a decline in rapes since 1997 and improvements to the Peace Corps' Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program.

The fact sheet was put together after "20/20" aired because Peace Corps felt it was unfair to lump rape and "other sexual assault"--kissing, groping etc-- in the same group of numbers. ABC News reported over 1000 rapes and sexual assaults in the last decade. Peace Corps said it wants to make the distinction between rapes and minor sexual assaults and "to correct misperceptions" created by "20/20".

"'20/20's reporting did not fully reflect our commitment to the health, safety and support of our volunteers, and we wanted to provide additional information to our community,"a Peace Corps official told ABC News.

Smochek told "20/20" that she was told to keep the rape quiet and said she felt the organization placed blame on her for walking home alone at 5 p.m. As part of First Response Action, she's working to improve Peace Corps training of volunteers to prepare them for how to handle a sexual assault and improve the organization's response when a rape or assault occurs.

Richard Day, Peace Corps Regional Operations Director for Africa, will speak on behalf of the organization at Friday's vigil.

The Peace Corps released a statement about the upcoming vigil saying that the organization continues to mourn Kate Puzey's loss.

"We stand with Kate's family and friends in remembering Kate's contributions to the world and are united in our sincere hope that justice will be served," said the statement.

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