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Federal Eye
Posted at 05:01 AM ET, 06/22/2011

Legislation backed to reform Peace Corps

Rein

House and Senate lawmakers will introduce bipartisan legislation Thursday that would improve treatment and prevention training for Peace Corps volunteers who are victims of violent crime, after criticism that the agency has not done enough to help them.

The bill will be named for Kate Puzey, a young volunteer from Georgia who was killed in Benin,West Africa, in 2009. Her throat was slit on the porch of her home after the Peace Corps mishandled confidential e-mails she sent to her bosses asking them to let go a Peace Corps employee she believed was sexually assaulting young girls at the school where she was posted.

The account of Puzey’s mother, Lois, at a House hearing in May, along with testimony from rape victims who came forward to describe insensitive treatment by the Peace Corps, led lawmakers to conclude that the agency needs more control from Congress.

The bill, according to a draft obtained by The Washington Post, would require the Peace Corps to hire victims advocates who would be stationed in different regions, so they could come to the aid of a volunteer who is assaulted. An advisory council would be set up to review the agency’s sexual assault policy and report to Congress.

The Corps would have to comply with best practices in training volunteers to reduce the risk of sexual assault and making sure medical and security staff respond with sensitivity. Many former volunteers have described a “blame the victim” culture that has persisted for years.

The bill also would protect whistle-blowers like Puzey, who was killed after she wrote to the country director in Benin about her suspicions in a confidential e-mail that was seen by the man’s brother, who also worked for the Peace Corps. The man is now accused of killing Puzey and in prison in Benin, but authorities there said recently they did not have enough evidence to bring him to trial. Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia) are the lead sponsors, with broad backing from other Democrats and Republicans, including Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

The Peace Corps director, Aaron S. Williams, has made changes in recent months to reduce the risk of violence and improve treatment for victims, including a policy of protecting the confidentiality of volunteers.

But many lawmakers, along with former volunteers, pressed for legislation. However, several bills with a similar intent have failed in Congress in recent years.

Isakson recently returned from a trip to Benin, where he met with the country’s president, who promised to allow the FBI to take an active role in the investigation of Puzey’s killing, the senator said.

“There’s no question in mind the Peace Corps learned a very valuable lesson from a very difficult experience,” Isakson said in an interview, referring to the need to protect the confidentiality of volunteers. Since they are not considered federal employees, volunteers are not protected by whistle-blower laws.

Allison Price, a spokeswoman for the Peace Corps, said she could not comment on the legislation until it is formally introduced.

By  |  05:01 AM ET, 06/22/2011

 
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