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US Congress Scrutinizes Peace Corps Volunteers' Security

The director of the U.S. Peace Corps has defended the organization against charges not enough is being done to protect the safety of its volunteers around the world. A troubling increase in attacks on Peace Corps volunteers was the subject of a congressional hearing Wednesday.

The Peace Corps has continued its work even as terrorist threats against Americans have increased in recent years. But amid its many accomplishments the Peace Corps faces escalating criticism that it has not made the kinds of changes necessary to ensure the safety and security of volunteers.

Incidences of physical attacks as well as robberies and disappearances have increased. Women, who now constitute a majority of volunteers, as well as those working in remote areas, are more vulnerable.

After a 20 month investigation, a newspaper in Ohio, The Dayton Daily News, published a series of articles on violence against Peace Corps volunteers.

The newspaper found that since 1991, reported incidents of assaults against volunteers more than doubled.

"The extent of this safety problem has been disguised for decades, partly because the assaults occurred thousands of miles away, partly because the Peace Corps has made little effort to publicize them, and partly because the agency deliberately kept people from finding out while emphasizing the positive aspects of Peace Corps service," said Jeffrey Bruce, an editor at the Dayton Daily News.

Included in the newspaper's reporting was the case of volunteer, Walter J. Poirer, who disappeared in 2001 in Bolivia. His father told the House International Relations Committee what he thinks led to his son's disappearance.

"We believe that the lack of supervision, lack of a meaningful assignment, and lack of a proper place to live, all contributed the loss of our son," he said. "From the beginning we have found Peace Corps to be more concerned with its image and protecting the aura and prestige of the Peace Corps than any other issue."

Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez says the agency has taken steps to improve security for volunteers. "The safety and security of each volunteer is the agency's top priority," he said. "While the Peace Corps will never be able to issue an absolute guarantee, we remain committed to delivering and developing optimum conditions for a safe and fulfilling experience for every Peace Corps volunteer."

Mr. Vasquez says there has actually been what he calls a "significant drop" in deaths, major sexual assaults, and minor assaults of volunteers.

President Bush and Congress support an increase in Peace Corps funding, which would push the number of volunteers from 7,500 to about 14,000.

Walter Poirer, whose son disappeared in Bolivia, says this should not occur without significant reforms. "Only after the safety of each and every individual volunteer is properly addressed, should there be an expansion of Peace Corps," he said.

General Accounting Office (GAO) official Jess Ford testified that the Peace Corps has increased the number of "Safety and Security Officers" abroad, and is moving to implement other changes. However, he added that there are still shortcomings. "At each of the five posts we visited, we found instances of volunteers who began their service in housing that had not been inspected and had not met Peace Corps guidelines," said Mr. Ford. "We also found variation in the frequency of staff contact with volunteers and in Peace Corps responsiveness to volunteer concerns about safety and security."

Legislation is pending in the House of Representatives aimed at strengthening management practices in the Peace Corps.

Other witnesses at the hearing urged that whatever changes take place, including those mandated by Congress, should not change the essential mission of the Peace Corps.