Most people I know in the PCV and RPCV community are familiar with Kate’s case. It was highly relevant to my own Peace Corps service in China, which began in the shadow of the tragedy in Benin, less than one year after Kate’s death. Resounding legislation in response to her murder saw several changes to both the way disciplinary action may occur among Peace Corps Staff, and how the families of fallen volunteers are required to be treated, yet justice in her name – through a conviction of her murderers – has never been realized.
I will not aim to tell Kate’s entire story, which can be found in exemplary detail here. In short, she was a 24 year old volunteer stationed in a village in Benin who happened upon the terrible secret that one of the locals hired by the Peace Corps had a track record of sexually abusing his students. After finally disclosing these abuses to Peace Corps after struggling with the decision for much of her service, the employee in question was promptly fired, while Kate remained at her site in the village, none the wiser.
No steps were taken to protect Kate from the potential fallout of costing this person their position and livelihood. No efforts were made to relocate her to another site, and no actions (aside from emails – her site did not have electricity, much less internet) were taken to even warn her that he had been removed from his post. In fact, the handling of the situation by Peace Corps is even further diminished as they allowed the sensitive information of Kate’s involvement in the case to be leaked to other Peace Corps staff members – one of whom happened to be the disgraced employee’s own brother.
In addition to the gross negligence exhibited by the Peace Corps in the events that led to Kate’s murder, they did not redeem themselves in subsequent dealings with Kate’s family. On the day that Kate’s body was discovered on her front porch in the early morning, Peace Corps did not even visit the crime scene until around 11pm, to collect her body. They notified her father while he was lying in a hospital bed via telephone, and unceremoniously dumped her belongings in the family’s driveway back in the U.S. Efforts to seek information by Kate’s family were subsequently stonewalled, and future country directors were specifically instructed not to speak with the family.
While maintaining that the Peace Corps does have value, I have been outspoken about my own criticisms of the organization. I don’t think volunteers are always treated fairly, there is too much protection granted for Peace Corps Staff (as evidenced by an incredibly difficult complaint system), and in my own experience, certain staff members could use more sensitivity training. Many volunteers go through the program without incidence, but for those who do, more powerful resources must be made available. If Kate’s story doesn’t demonstrate this, I can’t possibly imagine what will.
I am not clear on whether the Kate Puzey Act of 2011 had yet taken effect when my own cohort suffered a fatality in February of 2011, but I do know that my own country director tearfully sprang to action, personally going to Thailand to retrieve the body of our lost volunteer and to seek answers.
While fatalities in the Peace Corps are rare, they do happen. Of the over 200,000 people who have served in the Peace Corps, 296 have lost their lives during service. As an active volunteer, I received notifications each time a volunteer died – which were normally in Africa and due to accidents of a vehicular nature, hardly attributable to the negligence of the Peace Corps.
Kate’s family deserves justice for the unceremonious way her life prematurely ended. The investigation in Benin remains open, despite the obvious involvement of the suspects – who have been in jail since the murder, but may be released as the country lacks the resources to bring them to trial. The petition calls for U.S. intervention in the case.
I am both saddened and angered as I’m sure most Peace Corps affiliates are, and can only hope matters will be resolved soon.☼