Emma Tremblay, then a 25-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Seattle, was 4,000 miles from home on an exam table in Ecuador. A physician selected by the Peace Corps loomed over her and firmly placed his hand on her shoulder to keep her still.
“Do you feel good?” he asked, then leaned in, pressing his erection against her arm.
Tremblay feared he might go further. Half undressed, in pain and unsure whether she could fight him off, she stared him down. I’m fine, she said. When he backed away, Tremblay gathered her things and rushed onto Quito’s crowded streets.
Then, another violation of her trust: The Peace Corps had been warned the doctor was a threat.
Ashley Lipasek, a fellow volunteer, told Tremblay she had complained to the Peace Corps three months earlier in 2018 after the doctor hit on her and made vulgar remarks while touching her during a physical exam.
The news left Tremblay shell-shocked.
“They knew he was predatory. They knew this could happen,” she said. “And they sent me to him anyway.”
A USA TODAY investigation revealed the Peace Corps is failing to manage the threat of sexual assault against its volunteers, at times placing them in dangerous situations and inflicting further trauma by bungling its response to assaults. Although sexual assaults cannot always be prevented, USA TODAY found other examples like Tremblay’s in which Peace Corps staff ignored known threats. Volunteers have also accused staff of misrepresenting sexual assaults in official records, failing to explain the option of having a sexual assault forensic exam, and otherwise violating policies established over the last decade to address the Peace Corps’ vexing track record on sexual assault.
The burden for these failures is borne by volunteers who once trusted the Peace Corps with their lives. Each year the federal agency deploys thousands of Americans — most of them young women, many fresh out of college — to far-flung posts around the globe with the goal of promoting world peace. A dozen volunteers who said they were sexually assaulted while serving between 2016 and 2020 shared their experiences with USA TODAY. Reporters corroborated many of their accounts with agency records, contemporaneous messages and interviews with fellow volunteers.
A woman in Kyrgyzstan endured frequent assaults on a bus she took to work before she learned the local Peace Corps office knew the route was dangerous. Another volunteer said she was repeatedly groped by the father in her host family in Zambia, but Peace Corps staff waited more than a year before pulling her from the site. In Togo, after a volunteer left the Peace Corps because an employee at the school where she worked cornered her and pressured her for sex, the agency placed another woman in the same job — without telling her what happened.
Fellina Fucci said 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 whistle during the attack and told her the assailant was a friend of his who would likely gossip about her.
In an interview, Fucci said she felt prepared for the risks of being a woman alone in a remote, foreign village. But she wasn’t prepared for how an agency she trusted ultimately let her down.
“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.
Peace Corps officials, in a series of interviews with USA TODAY, touted reforms such as improved privacy protections, increased sexual assault awareness training and the designation of liaisons in each country to assist victims. The agency said it regularly assesses risks to volunteers and takes steps to reduce assaults.
But confronted with USA TODAY’s findings, Acting Director Carol Spahn said in a written statement the agency would review the structure of its sexual assault program and direct its inspector general to investigate the cases identified by the newspaper. She did not comment on individual accounts but praised the women for speaking out and encouraged others to come forward.
Spahn committed to finalizing several ongoing reform efforts before putting volunteers back in the field. The agency pulled all volunteers, nearly 7,000 in total, last year due to the pandemic and is now preparing to send a new class out.
“Although Peace Corps has made significant improvements in our risk reduction response and support programs over the last decade, these stories demonstrate that we still have work to do to support our volunteers,” Spahn said.
The Peace Corps failed these women after they were sexually assaulted while volunteering
Three women tell their stories of sexual assault while volunteering in the Peace Corps, and how the agency’s bungled response compounded their trauma.
Hannah Gaber, USA TODAY
It’s unclear whether she and other top Peace Corps officials grasp the extent of the agency’s sexual assault problem.
Renée Ferranti, director of the agency’s Sexual Assault Risk-Reduction and Response Program, told USA TODAY that rapes and aggravated sexual assaults have “remained pretty steady over the years.”
That’s not true. Peace Corps data USA TODAY analyzed show rapes and forceful sexual assaults volunteers disclosed at the end of their service nearly doubled from 2015 to 2019. One out of every 3 volunteers — about 1,280 — who finished service in 2019 experienced a sexual assault ranging from groping to rape, up from roughly 1 out of 4 in 2015, according to Peace Corps data.
For women, the toll is even higher: 44% who finished service in 2019 were sexually assaulted in some way.
Spahn acknowledged that sexual assaults are up but suggested that was mostly because agency reform efforts and the #metoo movement have made more victims comfortable coming forward.
But that discounts the agency’s own data, which undercuts the idea that volunteers are more likely to report to the agency. Reporting rates for rape and forcible sexual assaults have been relatively stagnant for the past five years, USA TODAY’s analysis found. Roughly half of rapes and three-quarters of aggravated sexual assaults of volunteers who ended their service in 2019 were unreported — the same as in 2015. Reporting rates only rose during that period for non-aggravated sexual assault.
Dyan Mazurana, a Tufts University professor who has studied sexual violence in the international aid community, said the Peace Corps’ sexual assault statistics depict “an organization that can’t get its act together.” She said the agency should shut down programs if Peace Corps staff can’t ensure its volunteers will be safe.
“That is so unacceptable. This is a job. You’re offering these people a job in programs that you run,” she said, “in projects that you set up, with communities that you have vetted, with hosts that you have vetted.”
Such criticism is not new for the Peace Corps, which launched sweeping reforms in 2011 after coming under fire for mishandling sexual assault. The agency has yet to fully implement nearly two dozen recommendations related to volunteer safety and support issued years ago by its Office of Inspector General, an internal watchdog. The oldest dates to 2013. They include directives designed to prevent placing volunteers in dangerous locations, ensure overseas staff complete sexual assault response training, and make sure victims seeking mental health care get needed assistance. The women USA TODAY interviewed raised all those issues with respect to their own cases.
Meanwhile, the agency’s Sexual Assault Advisory Council, which was pitched as another key reform, has not issued a public report since November 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. The council received expanded authority from Congress in 2018 to review individual assault cases but has not assessed a single case.
The agency provided USA TODAY with copies of reports from the council since 2016 but redacted every recommendation.
Lipasek, the volunteer who first complained about the doctor in Ecuador, told USA TODAY that Peace Corps staff sent her to a follow-up appointment with him, despite her complaint. They later agreed to send her to a new physician.
By then, Tremblay had filed an assault report after her visit with the doctor. According to emails, Peace Corps staff offered her counseling, assured her they would no longer send volunteers to the “assailant” physician and said they would consider filing a report with his employer.
The doctor told USA TODAY he was unaware of the volunteers’ allegations. He said the Peace Corps stopped referring volunteers to him in 2018 but did not tell him why. The doctor denied the allegations and said he has never been sued or accused of sexual misconduct. USA TODAY is not naming him because it found no indication he is the subject of a criminal complaint.
Shortly before leaving Ecuador, Tremblay channeled her outrage into an Instagram account she titled PeaceCorpsHR, a jab at the fact that the Peace Corps lacks a human resources department for volunteers. The account has nearly 2,000 followers and features dozens of stories from volunteers disillusioned with the agency.
Tremblay hoped the page would trigger change. Instead, it triggered a threat.
In a September Instagram message reviewed by USA TODAY, an agency public relations official ordered Tremblay to remove the name “Peace Corps” and said if she did not, she could be fined or face jail time.
Tremblay added “unauthorized” to the page title but kept posting.
“How many rapes are justified by work Peace Corps does through us volunteers?” she told USA TODAY. “Ten a year? Twenty? How many sexual assaults? How many traumatic situations that Peace Corps could have prevented but didn’t?”
Nearly every day, Amanda Moses boarded a marshrutka, a crowded bus that took her from the neighborhood in Kyrgyzstan where the Peace Corps assigned her to live to the university where the Peace Corps assigned her to work.
Men whose breath was thick with the smell of alcohol rubbed against her and groped her. Once, she was trapped amid a crush of passengers as a man grinded on her until he ejaculated. The final straw came in December 2017, when a man grabbed her breast so forcefully it left bruises, she said.
Moses reported the assault to staff at the Peace Corps office in Bishkek. She was stunned, she said, when Peace Corps Safety and Security Manager Asel Kydyrova told her a previous volunteer had reported the same problems on the bus.
“It was a real betrayal,” Moses told USA TODAY. “Not only did they know that this was a dangerous place to put me, but they were fine putting me in this danger.”
Kydyrova, in an interview with USA TODAY, confirmed the exchange with Moses, including that another volunteer had been assaulted on the same route.
“We have a lot of sexual assaults on marshrutkas,” she said.
Safety is supposed to be a key part of preparing for volunteers’ arrival. Staff assess potential host communities and housing, vet work sites and screen host families. David Fleisig, chief of overseas operations for the agency’s Office of Safety and Security, called the process robust.
But in December, the Peace Corps’ inspector general said it had longstanding concerns that the agency wasn’t vetting sites properly, increasing the risk that volunteers could be placed in harm’s way. The watchdog said volunteers had been assigned to locations with inadequate transportation and substandard housing. Medical and security staff reported that they had been rushed to approve sites. In one country, checklists were backdated or signed after volunteers had arrived.
The inspector general also sounded a warning about site history files, a critical tool used to track threats so volunteers aren’t placed in dangerous locations. The watchdog has raised concerns about the files before, including in a scathing 2016 report. This time, it said “incomplete, disorganized and unused” records were still commonplace.
In 2019 — more than a year after Moses reported her assault on the bus in Kyrgyzstan — the inspector general found none of the security incidents it reviewed in the country had been recorded in site history files. It’s unclear if Moses’ report was among those reviewed.
Fellina Fucci said she also fended off unwanted sexual advances — by members of her host families.
Shortly after arriving on the South Pacific island of Samoa in 2018, Fucci said the father in her host family choked her and said they should have sex. She told the Peace Corps and was moved to a new home.
There, she said, an adult son in her host family drunkenly pushed his way into her bedroom one night and groped and kissed her during a 20-minute struggle. She said she did not report the incident because the man planned to move out of the country, and she feared she would be forced to start over in a new village.
Fucci questions how thoroughly the Peace Corps vetted or trained either family.
The families were related, she said, but Peace Corps staff didn’t know until she told them. The agency also appeared unaware the adult son lived there. Paperwork that USA TODAY reviewed said she would be living with a husband and wife, a grandmother and the couple’s young child.
“It was very confusing,” Fucci said. “Like, who were you talking to this whole time? Is this even the right family? It would have been nice to know that there was going to be an older male person that’s going to be in this house as well.”
The inspector general in 2019 found that when vetting potential host families, only 15% of staff said they checked criminal or legal records, and only 10% checked for a history of domestic violence.
One in 6 people accused in sexual assault complaints in 2019 were people the volunteer lived or worked with, according to Peace Corps data. Host family members were accused of 32 sexual assaults against volunteers that year — two of them rapes.
It was only in 2018 that the Peace Corps instituted a requirement that host families and someone at each volunteer’s work site be trained in sexual assault awareness and prevention — and that was due to a congressional mandate. Before then, only 21% of staff provided such training for host families, the inspector general found. Some within the agency were initially reticent about the training because they did not want to impose an American view of sexual assault on other cultures, according to meeting minutes from the sexual assault advisory council.
Fucci is one of six former Peace Corps volunteers interviewed by USA TODAY who said they were sexually assaulted by people they lived or worked with.
Lauren Flurry, a volunteer in the small African country of Togo, ended her service early in 2018 after she said an employee of the school where the Peace Corps assigned her to teach invited her to have dinner with his family, and then groped her and propositioned her for sex. She said she asked Peace Corps staff not to place another female volunteer in the school.
Within weeks, the Peace Corps assigned Lacey Ihler to teach there. Ihler said staff didn’t tell her about what had happened. She learned about it from Flurry.
He “tried to force me into his bed,” Flurry told Ihler in a Facebook message. “They should have told you that.”
“NOPE NOPE,” Ihler responded, saying she believed Flurry left because she was struggling with her mental health — “which I assumed was like you were missing your family NOT THAT.”
“Yeah they should have warned you,” Flurry replied. “Watch out for that guy.”
Ihler said Peace Corps staff initially resisted her request for a new assignment.
“It made me feel like they didn’t care what happened to me at that point. And also, probably more than anything, it made me feel like they didn’t believe or trust Lauren,” Ihler said. “I don’t know what sane person would knowingly put another young girl in the same situation.”
Ihler said she was moved to another site but ended her service early after being stalked and sexually assaulted by a man in her new village.
If a volunteer is sexually assaulted during service, a 124-page playbook dictates how Peace Corps staff should respond. In most of the incidents USA TODAY reviewed, the women described points where staff violated those policies.
Two women who were raped said staff did not explain they could request a sexual assault forensic exam. Records show one wasn’t contacted by a victim advocate until eight months after reporting her assault, though that is supposed to happen within days. Four women said staff did not ask if they wanted to go to the police. Three said staff didn’t tell them a sexual assault response liaison was available to offer support.
Five women said Peace Corps staff mischaracterized their assaults in official records, in some cases blaming them or minimizing the agency’s culpability. A volunteer in Morocco who reported that her landlord had forcibly kissed her said staff falsely recorded that she was drinking and using drugs. After two volunteers reported being raped in Guatemala in separate incidents, they said staff overstated the amount of alcohol one had consumed and falsely said the other had consented.
A volunteer in Thailand who reported being choked and forcibly kissed by a man at a bar had to appeal to a victim advocate in Washington, D.C., after the crime was categorized as a physical assault, not a sexual one. The victim advocate, in an email, said the report was reclassified at her request. But it never was, records show. An advocate told her the change was accidentally made to an inactive report, meaning it wasn’t counted in agency sexual assault statistics. The advocate in an email this month said the agency would work to fix the mistake.
“I don’t think it’s an accident at all,” the woman who reported the assault said. “It is absolutely the way that they respond to sexual assault, is to minimize and invalidate what happened.”
USA TODAY does not name sexual assault victims without their consent.
Some of the oldest unresolved concerns the Peace Corps inspector general identified relate to staff training on sexual assault procedures. In 2013, the watchdog found many overseas staff had not taken the training and said the Peace Corps needed to track training records better. As of this month, the recommended fixes remain incomplete, according to the inspector general’s office.
The volunteer from Thailand said Peace Corps staff once again failed her when she reported in December 2018 that she had been raped by a man she met at a bar in Bangkok.
At the time, she was preparing to leave the country for non-urgent knee surgery. The woman said staff didn’t ask as required if she wanted to go to police or undergo a forensic medical exam. They also did not offer to have someone accompany her to the United States, an option available to victims of sexual assault when they take medical leave in the United States.
Sitting across from a Peace Corps doctor three days later, the 34-year-old woman threw up several times and “requested mental health support,” according to the doctor’s notes.
The doctor wrote that there wasn’t time because the volunteer’s flight was early the next morning.
“I am having a really hard time,” the volunteer wrote to the doctor in an email a few hours later, again requesting support.
She traveled alone to the airport. Once there, a Peace Corps psychologist called from Washington, D.C. They walked through relaxation skills and a five-minute guided imagery session, the therapist’s notes show.
Armed with those exercises and the Benadryl she said she had been given by the Peace Corps doctor to help her sleep, the woman boarded the first of three flights home.
“They just sent me away,” she told USA TODAY.
In 2018, Peace Corps crime statistician Marina Murray ran a new analysis for the agency, painstakingly matching sexual assaults revealed in end-of-service surveys with those reported during service.
It was a far cry from the kind of data she had worked with in the Peace Corps director’s office — “happy data,” she said, about things like volunteer satisfaction and success. But Murray told herself she was doing her part to protect volunteers.
Her analysis, published by the agency that year, suggested the rise in reports wasn’t strictly because volunteers were more comfortable coming forward. The data suggested more volunteers were being sexually assaulted.
Murray, who left the agency later that year, recently reviewed USA TODAY’s analysis of the most recent five years of Peace Corps crime data and said the data on rape and aggravated sexual assault still suggests victimizations are up. She zeroed in on the percentage of rapes that went unreported — a number that barely shifted over those years. Then she paused on the rising number of rapes that volunteers did report.
It is a relatively small share of the overall volunteer population, Murray noted. “But it doesn’t really matter,” she added. “Because each victim is a ruined life.”
A decade ago, a group of former volunteers came forward with agonizing accounts of being sexually assaulted. In nationally televised interviews and at a 2011 hearing before Congress, they said the Peace Corps could have done more to help and protect them.
Congress passed sweeping legislation named for Kate Puzey, a volunteer killed after reporting sexual misconduct by a co-worker to Peace Corps staff, who failed to keep her identity confidential.
Some of the reforms were hobbled from the start. An internal review in 2014 found “deep resentment and mistrust” and “institutional fatigue” had undermined the Peace Corps’ sexual assault prevention and response program, according to a copy obtained by USA TODAY.
In 2016, the agency’s first victim advocate left the job after accusing the Peace Corps of ongoing failures, such as not providing adequate counseling and not training host families or co-workers on sexual assault. A federal whistleblower office, in response to her claims, urged the agency to “establish clear, consistent, and effective policies” on sexual assault.
“It has always been a struggle,” said Poe, a Texas Republican who retired in 2019. “It has been a hard push to get these little incremental changes made.”
Carrie Hessler-Radelet, who served as the agency’s director from 2012 to 2017, in an interview with USA TODAY noted the Peace Corps is a complex agency with thousands of employees and volunteers spread across 60 countries. She said it was difficult for some employees, who were committed to supporting volunteers, to come to terms with evolving standards on sexual assault.
“It was really hard to tell them that the care and support that they had been providing was not up to standard,” she said.
For Hessler-Radelet, the undertaking was personal. She had been a volunteer in the early 1980s in Western Samoa and said she was sexually assaulted three times by a supervisor. She reported the last assault to the Peace Corps and assumed the man was fired. Decades later, as an agency leader, she learned he had continued to work there for 15 years.
“Peace Corps still has work to do. We all have work to do,” Hessler-Radelet said. “This is going to be a continual effort for as long as the agency is alive.”
Tremblay, the volunteer who reported being assaulted in Ecuador, wants the agency to implement fixes from the inspector general before sending any volunteers back into the field, hire more medical and mental health professionals and expand the staff and authority of the Office of Victim Advocacy. She thinks the agency needs more funding and transparency in how that money is spent.
“We can just sit here and tell you our stories again and again and again,” she said. “And you can choose to listen to them, or you can choose to ignore them.”
In late 2016, a 21-year-old Peace Corps volunteer arrived in a rural Guatemalan town a few hours from the Mexican border. The woman, an international studies major who had grown up abroad, had heard stories of her father’s life-changing experience in the Peace Corps. Her experience in the coming months was equally transformative, as she bonded with her host family and students. After classes, she gazed through the windows of a tiny microbus as it snaked through the mountains.
“I would be thinking about the class that I just taught, and then come back into this beautiful sunset descending on the town that I lived in,” she said. “And I would just be filled with gratitude for the life that I was living.”
Today, she struggles to separate those memories from frustration over the Peace Corps’ botched handling of a sexual assault she reported three months before her service ended.
In September 2018, the woman went to a bar in a nearby town with friends from the municipal office where she worked. They had several drinks, in celebration of a co-worker’s birthday and upcoming wedding. After they got to their hotel, the woman lost consciousness. She said when she came to, she was being raped. In the dark, she said, it took a few moments to realize it was her town’s mayor, Selvin Omar Villatoro Recinos, above her.
Back in her town, she called a Peace Corps medical officer and said she wanted to be tested for sexually transmitted infections because she had been assaulted, records show.
As part of the reforms enacted by the Peace Corps, staff have a script for handling these calls. Some prompts are especially crucial if the assault was recent: Are you safe? Don’t bathe or use the bathroom, if possible. You don’t have to decide about going to the police now, but let’s do a few things to preserve your ability to make that decision when you are ready.
Peace Corps officials in Guatemala made critical mistakes after the woman reported her assault, according to her account and records from her case. She said that although staff asked if she had showered — she had — they did not ask her about maintaining other physical evidence, as required by policy. When she left for the hospital, she left behind the clothing she wore the night of the assault.
At the hospital, she said a local physician who worked for the Peace Corps handed her a form listing various medical and support services, such as a sexual assault forensic exam, and told her to review it. The doctor did not discuss the options with her, she said. The woman did not request a forensic exam, and one was not completed, her Peace Corps records show.
Looking back, the woman said she feels betrayed and wishes someone from the Peace Corps had walked her through the process.
“I wasn’t in a right state of mind to be able to make those decisions,” she said. “I wasn’t at a place where I could say, ‘Well, this was rape. And I should potentially look into seeing what all my options are or not closing any doors.’”
When she decided a few months later to go to authorities, the woman said the Peace Corps hired an attorney to meet with her. She said staff offered little help after that. When she emailed the safety and security manager for guidance, he took days to respond, emails show. The woman, whose service had just ended, said she felt like an afterthought.
“I think that was what Peace Corps’ philosophy was,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how we treat her because she’s leaving anyway.”
Court records provided by the woman’s attorney show a Guatemalan prosecutor in October 2019 petitioned the courts for permission to investigate the allegations. The woman’s attorney, Herbert Pérez, said that investigation is ongoing, and charges have not been filed. Luky Amarilis Villatoro, who coordinates prosecutions of sex crimes against women in Huehuetenango, told USA TODAY her office is investigating a case against Villatoro Recinos but said local law prohibited her from sharing details.
Villatoro Recinos, who is no longer mayor, denied the allegations and said he left the hotel without going to the room where the woman said she was assaulted. “None of that happened,” he said.
The woman said she knew when she went to authorities that the criminal process would be more difficult without physical evidence. She now worries Peace Corps staff have further jeopardized the case.
After she left Guatemala, a fellow volunteer told her Peace Corps staff had put together a presentation on reducing crime, highlighting volunteer sexual assaults during 2018. Names were not used, but details from the five rape cases that year were. The friend knew the woman’s assault was among the incidents laid out as cautionary tales. The presenter claimed that in all five, volunteers had initially consented to sexual contact with their assailants.
The woman requested from the Peace Corps the records from her case in an effort to determine how her assault had been so badly mischaracterized.
“While in the hotel room, the (Peace Corps volunteer) and the offender began to kiss and they engaged in foreplay,” the report she was provided reads. “At 3AM, the offender continued to engage in sexual foreplay. At that time she withdrew her consent.”
It was a wholesale fabrication, the woman said. The Peace Corps later corrected the report at her behest, records show.
In a letter to Peace Corps officials, she said staff had not only falsified records but shared that information “across a small, close-knit population,” including with the volunteer who replaced her in her village and worked with her attacker.
“I will be dealing with the psychological trauma of my rape for the rest of my life,” she wrote. “I implore you to take action and prevent posts from revictimizing volunteers.”
Ferranti, the director of the agency’s sexual assault prevention and response program, replied that staff had “put a lot of thought into the presentation.” But she said the woman’s concerns raised some important issues, including the need for staff to be careful with such sensitive information, in case it could be tied to a specific volunteer.
The woman said that is exactly what happened to her. Not only did her friend recognize her among the statistics, but she felt staff had deliberately highlighted details that blamed the volunteers for what had happened to them.
It was yet another moment in which Peace Corps staff had let her down.
“The trauma that Peace Corps left me with is just something that I’m going to have to continue to work through,” she said. “And it is almost completely separate from the incident itself, which is where all of my energy should have gone.”
Contributing: Maria Perez, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Donovan Slack and Tricia L. Nadolny are reporters at USA TODAY. Donovan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DonovanSlack. Tricia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TriciaNadolny.