After an ABC News report about the murder of a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, members of Congress have introduced a bill designed to protect whistleblowers and improve the treatment of victims of violence and sexual assault.
The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 is named for 24-year-old Kate Puzey, 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," 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.
"It's been a long journey since that devastating day that we heard Kate had been murdered," said Lois Puzey of Cumming, Ga., Kate's mother. "The effort of so many people, including ABC News, has got us to the point where we hope Kate will be honored and other Peace Corps volunteers will be able to serve safely."
Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) introduced the bill with a Capitol Hill press conference Thursday. "The time has come to stand up and protect America's angels abroad", said Poe. "Peace Corps volunteers are ambassadors of the United States who spend their lives helping others who are less fortunate all over the world. These precious people are dedicated to taking care of others; now it is time to make sure that they are taken care of."
The bill would require the Peace Corps to improve the training of volunteers to reduce sexual assault risk, would protect whistleblowers, and would require the Peace Corps to hire victims' advocates for each region the agency serves.
"I am delighted with the content of the bill," said former Peace Corps volunteer Karestan Koenen, who was raped while serving in Niger in 1991. "Twenty years ago, the Peace Corps denied me the opportunity of seeking justice against my attacker. This bill feels like justice." Koenen said she felt that the way the Peace Corps treated her after the assault was worse than the actual rape. Now an Ivy League professor, Koenen had never told her story publicly until she saw the ABC News investigation about victims of assault.
Kate Puzey was serving in a village in the West African nation of Benin in March 2009 when she began to suspect that a Peace Corps employee named Constant Bio, a citizen of Benin, was sexually harassing and sleeping with female students at the school where she taught. She sent an email to country headquarters reporting her suspicions and recommending he be fired.
"Please believe me, I'm not someone who likes to create problems, but this has been weighing heavily on me," reads the e-mail she sent, obtained by ABC News.
Bio's brother worked as a manager in the Peace Corps office and Puzey asked her role be kept secret. She was found with her throat slit shortly after Bio received word from Peace Corps officials that he would be dismissed from his contractor position.
The suspect has been in custody since the murder while authorities in Benin investigate. Bio asserted his innocence in a letter to a newspaper in Benin, claiming he was being framed by America. Benin authorities have said they do not yet have enough evidence to try Bio.
The Puzey family believes that the Peace Corps failed to protect Kate, and then kept them in the dark about what had happened.
"It hurts us very deeply," said Kate's father, Harry Puzey, in an interview for "20/20."
"We wouldn't be sitting here, I think, if they had been more transparent with us, more honest with us," added Lois Puzey.
Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the Peace Corps deputy director, refused to say whether the agency bore any responsibility for Kate Puzey's death, citing the ongoing criminal investigation in Benin. "I cannot say because the investigation is not complete," she told ABC News.
Critics of the Peace Corps say the agency has a culture that tries to downplay violent incidents overseas and make victims feel responsible for their own misfortunes. Women who were sexually assaulted while serving as Peace Corps volunteers told ABC News that the treatment they received after they were attacked was sometimes worse than the assaults themselves, and that the agency seemed ill-equipped to deal with victims.
Casey Frazee, who was assaulted while serving in South Africa, formed a group called First Response Action to pressure the Peace Corps into reforming its treatment of victims and updating its sexual assault prevention program.
Frazee hailed the Kate Puzey bill introduced Thursday as a breakthrough, and noted that the Peace Corps had worked with First Response Action and members of Congress on reform. "First Response Action is thrilled to see legislation come to fruition that supports Peace Corps Volunteers who report or experience a crime, whether as a victim or a whistleblower," said Frazee. "We are thankful to Congressman Poe and Senator Isakson for working closely with us and Peace Corps to generate this legislation." Cosponsors of the bill include Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), and Reps. Howard Berman and Sam Farr, both California Democrats.
In a statement Thursday, Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams said the "safety and security of our volunteers is Peace Corps' top priority."
"The Peace Corps welcomes the work of Congress on this important issue," said Williams, "and looks forward to continuing our joint efforts to improve our response to sexual assault and other crimes."