By Anna Schecter, ABC News
Washington, Jan 27 -
In the wake of an ABC News "20/20" investigation, a Congressional committee announced plans for hearings on the Peace Corps' handling of more than a thousand cases of female volunteers who were raped or sexually assaulted over the last decade. "This is very upsetting. If these numbers are accurate this is something that Congress definitely should investigate," Rep. Rohrabacher, R-California, Chairman of the House subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, told ABC News.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, called for the hearing Wednesday, telling ABC News he was "furious and sad" after watching the "20/20" report.
In the report, six former Peace Corps volunteers and victims of sexual assault recounted the attacks against them. Most of the women said within the Peace Corps there was a culture of blaming the victim, and that they felt they had no advocate in Washington to help cut through red tape to get counseling.
"The Peace Corps needs to get its act together and make sure the victims of rape have peace of mind when they are serving the United States," Poe said.
Poe said that he will be their advocate in Washington. "The cavalry is coming," he said.
In the letter asking for the hearing, Poe called the Peace Corps' alleged treatment of the women "gross negligence in caring for its volunteers abroad."
"The Peace Corps did not adequately protect its volunteers, bring U.S. resources to bear on any criminal investigation, nor provide proper care for the victims in the aftermath," Poe wrote.
Poe cited the experience of Jess Smochek of Pennsylvania, who was interviewed by ABC News as part of the 20/20 report. Smochek, now 29, joined the Peace Corps in 2004 and was sent to Bangladesh. Just four months after arriving she was gang raped. Smochek said she felt the Peace Corps tried to cover up what happened to her.
"I have three daughters about Jess's age. They want to save the world too," said Rep. Poe. "People like Jess are the salt of the earth and it's just horrible our government doesn't stand beside them."
On Monday, Poe dedicated his daily one-minute House Floor speech to Smochek, using information he learned from the 20/20 report.
"According to ABC News," said Poe, "over 1,000 rapes and assaults occurred in the last 10 years against American women working for the Peace Corps, but apparently no one is listening. Those days need to end, and it's time for justice for Jess Smochek, because justice is what we do in this country. And that's just the way it is."
"Although I was surprised to find out Congressman Poe chose to speak about me during his floor speech on Monday," Smochek told ABC News, "I am glad that the '20/20' piece has finally brought this very important issue of Peace Corps negligence of sexual assault and rape victims to the attention of Congress.
"I fully support an oversight hearing in hopes of finally holding the Peace Corps accountable for what it has done to volunteers who are survivors of such trauma, such as myself," she said.
Casey Frazee, an advocate for Peace Corps volunteer victims of rape and sexual assault, teamed up with Smochek to meet with members of Congress in December, before the "20/20" story aired. That meeting, which members of Poe's staff attended, resulted in a letter to Peace Corps director Aaron Williams urging change. It wasn't until after the "20/20" report that Poe, who was not present for the December meeting, demanded a formal investigation.
"We had heard some rumblings, we had had some correspondence with some victims of crime, but the magnitude of the problem was only brought out thanks to ABC News," Poe said.
Frazee also appeared in the ABC News report, recounting her experience of sexual assault in South Africa and the Peace Corps' response.
"I want [Peace Corps] to create effective, sustainable policies for training, response and treatment for sexual violence," Frazee said. Frazee's advocacy group, First Response Action, has been in contact with dozens of volunteer victims of sexual assault.
In a statement to ABC News, Peace Corps Director Williams said the agency had "made significant improvements over the past two years in providing support to sexual assault victims."
"We look forward to working with Congress to further strengthen the Peace Corps and advance our mission of world peace and friendship," said Williams.