A journey of reform

By Carrie Hessler-Radelet
Nov. 30, 2015

As a woman, a mother, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a sexual assault survivor myself, there is nothing more important to me than the health and safety of our Peace Corps Volunteers. As the Peace Corps Director, I have devoted myself and our agency to providing Volunteers with the most compassionate and effective training, care and support possible, so they can remain healthy, safe and productive throughout their service and beyond.

Over the past five years, the Peace Corps has undertaken a massive reform effort to help our Volunteers reduce risks wherever possible and dramatically improve our response when crimes do occur. While we have made significant progress, the truth is, we cannot prevent all risks to Volunteers. And our reform is not yet complete. We are still learning, with the help of our Volunteers who provide us with valuable input based on their personal experience. I care about this reform at the deepest possible level.

Together, we have achieved extraordinary progress, seeing nothing short of a culture change that reflects our dedication to Volunteers and our commitment to a response that is victim–centered and consistent with our nation’s best practice. Our record of agency reform reflects that progress.

Peace Corps has fully implemented the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act – honoring the life of this exceptional Volunteer by going above and beyond the requirements of the law.

We have worked closely with nationally recognized experts in the field of sexual assault to implement and evaluate major reforms and comprehensive policies. Our strategy incorporates more than 30 policy changes and extensive training for all Volunteers and staff. Volunteers now have access to the services of a victim advocate and sexual assault response liaisons at each post; a 24-hour anonymous hotline that provides crisis counseling and information about Peace Corps’ sexual assault reporting and response procedures; and a new option to report incidents – restricted reporting – which strictly limits access to information about an assault to those providing services requested by the Volunteer.

In addition, we have taken steps to reduce risks before crimes occur through volunteer training -- including bystander intervention, risk assessment, and other skill-building sessions during training throughout Volunteers life of service.

We have real indications these reforms are working. According to our Response Quality Survey, which seeks the feedback of Volunteers who have received Peace Corps sexual assault services, 96% of respondents said their preferences were taken into account and 97% said their confidentiality and privacy were protected.  In addition, the independent committee of experts who advises the agency, the Sexual Assault Advisory Council, wrote in their most recent report:

“The Council continues to be impressed with the Peace Corps for its dedication to fulfill the mandates of the Kate Puzey Act and for the development of a wide range of programs and services for Volunteers. Whether implementing new policies, introducing new staff and Volunteer training, or working to monitor and evaluate programs and services, the Peace Corps has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to its Volunteers.”

Our overriding objective is to encourage Volunteers who are victims of sexual assault and other crimes to come forward so we can provide them with the services they need and deserve. Since the full implementation of our Sexual Assault Risk Reduction and Response program in 2013, our first year of data indicates about a 14% increase in reports of sexual assault. This expected increase in reporting indicates that Volunteers are now more aware of their options and more comfortable seeking support and assistance from the Peace Corps – exactly as we hoped they would.

These reforms are significant, but they are not perfect. Where we fall short of our goals or there are places to improve, I continue to personally urge the Peace Corps community to let us know. We ask that you reach out to any staff member or the Office of the Inspector General. Tell us both where we are doing well and where we can do better. We are grateful for your input, and future Volunteers will benefit from your feedback.

While we will continue to evaluate and strengthen our policies and procedures, I am proud of the great progress we've made. These reforms have resulted in more Volunteers seeking needed support, and improved satisfaction with the services Peace Corps provides. Our reforms reflect our ironclad commitment to the physical and emotional wellbeing of every single Volunteer.

We do this work because the work of our Volunteers and their communities is so important, and because Peace Corps is needed more in the world today than ever before. We will continue to do all we can to strengthen our agency and build on our decades-long commitment to making meaningful change where it is most needed.

Carrie Hessler-Radelet