Progress, failures, and what’s on the horizon: a conversation convened for Peace Corps Connect 2021
Illustration by Anna + Elena = Balbusso
On September 26, 2011, as the Peace Corps community marked 50 years of Volunteers serving in communities around the world, the U.S. Senate passed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which was signed into law later that year. Three years ago, Congress completed work on the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act. These two pieces of legislation were designed to bring about improvements and reforms pertaining to the health, safety, and security of Volunteers. What made them necessary were two tragedies: Volunteer Kate Puzey was murdered after she reported a Peace Corps employee for sexually abusing children; Volunteer Nick Castle died when he did not receive appropriate medical care in time.
National Peace Corps Association brought together this panel on September 25, 2021, to discuss progress, shortcomings, and future steps needed to further support and protect Volunteers as Peace Corps prepares for global redeployment. Below are edited excerpts.
Watch the entire discussion here: Peace Corps Safety and Security: A Decade of Legislation for Change
Susan Smith Howley, J.D.
Project Director, Center for Victim Research at Justice Research and Statistics Association
Mother of fallen Volunteer Nick Castle
Casey Frazee Katz
Volunteer in South Africa 2009
Founder of First Response Action
Moderated by Maricarmen Smith-Martinez
Volunteer in Costa Rica 2006–08
Chair of the NPCA Board 2018–21
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: Issues relating to sexual assault and violence against women, and to inadequate healthcare, span the globe. Peace Corps is not immune to these challenges. We want to review the passage of laws aimed at improving and addressing challenges in Volunteer safety and health; consider how successful those laws have been in bringing about progress and change; explore where those efforts have fallen short; and consider steps to take moving forward — and identify opportunities in this unique moment.
My first foray into advocacy for Volunteer health and safety began as a member of Atlanta Area Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, after hearing Kate Puzey’s mother speak at Peace Corps 50th anniversary events in 2011. One activist who led the charge in securing the passage of the Kate Puzey Act is Casey Frazee Katz; she created First Response Action and built a grassroots movement to push this legislation forward. What did you hope to achieve?
Casey Frazee Katz: During my service as a Volunteer in South Africa, I was sexually assaulted. I found quickly that there were other Volunteers in South Africa and across the African continent and the globe who had also been sexually assaulted or harassed. What I couldn’t find were rules, laws, information, resources for someone who had been sexually assaulted as a Volunteer. So I founded First Response Action to work toward getting protections, support resources, and information codified for Volunteers.
We initially started working with Peace Corps administration. Quickly it became obvious that we needed to take a step up. We began working with legislators and pulled in other returned Volunteers and families, including Kate Puzey’s family. We drafted the initial legislation, which went through many rounds before that was signed in 2011 to codify some supports for Volunteers—and to establish victim advocacy. I’m grateful that 10 years later, victim advocacy exists within the Peace Corps. This is an issue that is ongoing. So I’m grateful NPCA is keeping this issue top of mind.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: One outcome of that legislation was creation of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council.
Susan Howley: I was a victim advocate at the national policy level for more than 25 years, working with people around the country as they passed their first victims rights laws: the first Violence Against Women Act, then the second, then the third. Now there’s a fourth. I worked with people who helped name and develop a response to stalking and human trafficking; worked to address the DNA backlog; worked with those raising awareness and calling for change in the military, on college campuses, in churches, in youth organizations, about sexual assault. I now work in the Center for Victim Research, trying to build an evidence base for how we can better support victims and survivors. In 2012, I was part of the first Sexual Assault Advisory Council and served during its first four years.
By the time that council first met, the Peace Corps had already taken steps to stand up an office for victim advocacy; they developed and piloted their first training; there was already a risk reduction in response programming beginning to be put in place; and there were plans to research and monitor impacts. We were asked to advise on certain things; one was creation of a restricted reporting process, where Volunteers could report confidentially and access services and supports.
What struck me were the complexities involved. There’s no uniform justice system around the world. Peace Corps has no criminal jurisdiction over foreign actors. The recognition of sexual assault was far from universal.
What struck me were the complexities involved. There’s no uniform justice system around the world. Peace Corps has no criminal jurisdiction over foreign actors. The recognition of sexual assault was far from universal, especially for crimes that don’t involve penetration; certainly no uniform understanding of what sexual harassment is, or that it’s wrong. Mental health response wasn’t consistently available in countries. Unlike the military, there was no universal authority over anyone who might be involved in an assault — or response. Even where one Volunteer assaulted another, the Peace Corps didn’t have the same ability to hold someone accountable that you might have in the military. Unlike on a college campus, there are only one or two opportunities to reach the bulk of Volunteers for training. Peace Corps wanted to do a survey of RPCVs to find out more about the extent of sexual assault and harassment; that was a heavy lift, because RPCVs are no longer affiliated with the Peace Corps. You had to go through a whole process with the Office of Management and Budget before you could even think about having a survey.
How do you train in-country staff? How often do they get together? Now we’re used to doing trainings by Zoom. It was a different world 10 years ago. There were a lot of issues that came up when Peace Corps was developing things like restrictive reporting; the Inspector General didn’t understand why they didn’t automatically get all reports — even confidential. It took time for country directors to understand they could not automatically get all information about confidential or restricted reports.
With the Sexual Assault Advisory Council, each year we would come together and get a briefing on new adjustments, progress, evolutions in trainings or policies. We would hear what happened to the previous year’s recommendations: Which ones had the Peace Corps agreed with and were adopting? Which ones did the Peace Corps partially agree with? Which ones did they disagree with — and why? Then we would meet to review everything new and make recommendations.
We would help identify best practices and adapt them. But the term “best practices” is really “best that we know right now.” Often you’re pointing to a program that worked for that group in that context. Does it work here with these people? Where there were no best practices, the Peace Corps and the Sexual Assault Advisory Council relied on key principles of trying to be as transparent as possible and trying to give victims options wherever possible. You create the best trainings and policies that you can at the moment; you implement them and monitor them. Then see where things aren’t working and adjust.
I can’t think of a single area of crime victim response where advocates have been able to say, “Now we’re done. We have a system where every crime victim gets a just and compassionate response.” The most we can say in any arena is: “This is an improvement. What’s next?”
I mentioned Zoom. There are new opportunities for virtual response and training. There’s new understanding of what it means to be trauma-informed, victim-centered. You can’t have a system of continual improvement without hearing from those for whom the system is not working. There have to be systems to identify and learn from cases where risk reduction failed, or response was harmful. We have to support victims who come forward after being failed, recognize their courage, and advocate for them.
Improvements in our system of response to victims and survivors of crime in all kinds of settings, including the Peace Corps, have largely occurred because someone who was harmed or was close to someone who was harmed said, “This has to change.” Even where we make major improvements, the struggle for all of us is to recognize that “this has to change” is a repeated theme. There’s always more to do to ensure a victim-centered response and working support system. I can’t think of a single area of crime victim response where advocates have been able to say, “Now we’re done. We have a system where every crime victim gets a just and compassionate response.” The most we can say in any arena is: “This is an improvement. What’s next?”
Illustration by Anna + Elena = Balbusso
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: In addition to safety, we want to discuss healthcare for Volunteers. I first met Sue Castle several years ago through NPCA advocacy efforts; she and her husband, Dave, were working closely with members of Congress to draft and advance legislation that is now named after their son. They have been fully engaged with NPCA efforts to support it. I’ve seen firsthand the powerful impact of their story when shared with members of Congress. I’ve also seen how difficult it can be to repeat this story over and over again.
Sue Castle: I must thank everyone who has dedicated their time and effort in supporting reform efforts. Yet it’s pretty disheartening, because it is 10 years after the Kate Puzey Protection Act was signed into law, and we’re still trying to see it followed.
A month after graduating from U.C. Berkeley, in 2012, my son Nick was sent to China as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He became quite ill while serving, and he died in February 2013. Medical care he received by a Peace Corps medical officer (PCMO) was poor and contributed to his death. My primary goal in being involved in advocacy was to make sure what happened to Nick could never happen to another Volunteer. Sadly, that did not happen.
No one wants to have to share some of the worst moments of their life.
In 2018, another Volunteer, Bernice Heiderman, died due to poor medical care. Policies were not being followed. It’s heartbreaking to see this. Peace Corps is supposed to be about what is best about American service: to learn about the cultures, values, and traditions of other countries. But the Peace Corps fails when it comes to taking care of Volunteers who have had a difficult service. Volunteers who return home ill or disabled have difficulty receiving healthcare. Volunteers who are a victim of a crime or sexual assault have difficulty seeing any resolution to their case, and in receiving proper mental health services to move forward in processing their trauma. Many times these Volunteers take their case public, hoping to get help. No one wants to have to share some of the worst moments of their life.
In 2018, the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act was signed into law. It extends some provisions in the Kate Puzey Act. Yet some of these provisions remain vague. I’ve talked to members in Congress about that. Some issues remain confidential and are unable to be discussed — such as performance reviews of PCMOs. I want to see better healthcare in training before any growth or expansion of the Peace Corps. I want to see professional PCMOs; less encouragement to tough it out or be ignored; and a more thorough examination of the patient. I want to see medical training that reflects current standards, and reviews that accurately reflect the competency of the PCMO.
Cultural bias can be difficult to overcome. There needs to be more training in regard to that. Voices with more recent experience in regard to safety and sexual assault need to be acknowledged and not dismissed. The approach that the Peace Corps has taken has not translated into long-standing change. New ways of dealing with these issues need to be explored. The cost of advocacy is high when you have to retell your story over and over again. Peace Corps shouldn’t have to wait for a response because of a story in The Daily Beast or The New York Times or USA Today. They need to do better.
Where’s the data?
Casey Frazee Katz: When I started talking to people in my group about being assaulted, some shared that they knew of other people who had come through South Africa who had also been assaulted, or had been in other countries and medevaced to South Africa. But we didn’t have data. So I created a basic survey where I asked Volunteers to share as widely as they could, to get better data: Who had been assaulted? Which countries had hot spots or particular issues? What was the response? Do they feel supported or not? The vast majority — three-quarters of people — felt they were not supported. We were hopeful to go in the direction of the quarter of people who did feel supported: What happened there, and how are they connected? How are they resourced? Then we know what to do next.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: Do you think that the efforts the council is taking are setting the stage for an evidence-based approach?
We were hopeful to go in the direction of the quarter of people who did feel supported: What happened there, and how are they connected? How are they resourced? Then we know what to do next.
Susan Howley: There’s always more to be done. There’s now a fully functioning RPCV survey, which will be very helpful. There’s about to be a new database that will make it easier to keep victims’ information confidential but allow pulling out more data about what happened, the kinds of responses people are getting. You still need a system that makes it comfortable for people who feel that they were failed to come forward and report — whether that’s anonymously or identifying themselves.
Just like there’s no best practice in response, there’s also no best practice in gathering this kind of data. We’ve tried national victimization surveys, local victimization surveys, college victimization surveys. There’s always a better way to improve response rates, accuracy, and understanding. The Peace Corps is about to undertake a more formal evaluation of its programs. That’s important, because one step is to try to articulate: What are the outcomes we are looking for? What are the indicators we’ll be able to gather that will show whether we are getting those outcomes? The outcomes are typically: We want people who have been victimized to thrive in the future. What is it that they might tell us is happening in the short term that is an indicator they’ll thrive in the future? You have to keep working at it and refining it.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: If things are not documented appropriately, we are liable to repeat mistakes.
Sue Castle: What they need to do is hold people accountable for when they aren’t documenting. It tends to come out later that they did not document a safety and security or healthcare incident. There’s no accountability for not documenting. We’re going to have a new security management system. Training is critical. But I think there’s a cultural bias to dismissing some health or security concerns; that’s why they’re not documented. They need to document everything and make it clear: You’re not going to be punished for documenting, but you are going to be held accountable if you’re not documenting.
Is this a matter of needing more legislation — for example, for the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act? Or is it a matter of better implementing legislation we have passed — the Kate Puzey Act, the Farr-Castle Act? What types of measures would help support improved implementation?
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act is a great piece of legislation. It covers a lot: increase in the workers’ compensation rate from GS 7 to 11 for RPCVs who come home and are unable to work because of a service-related illness or injury; it extends whistleblower protection; it includes the Respect for Peace Corps Act. As far as prior legislation: That shouldn’t take this long to implement.
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez: The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act would also increase the period in which Peace Corps would pay for post-service insurance from one month to three months. We saw that post-evacuation — so trying to make that permanent. The legislation proposes further reporting on post-service mental healthcare provided to returned Volunteers. What might the gradual reintroduction of Volunteers into the field mean when it comes to improving the safety and security and piloting measures?
Sue Castle: They’re already working on improving behavioral health resources for Volunteers — a good first step.
Casey Frazee Katz: What comes to my mind, especially thinking of the council working on risk reduction, is evaluating sites. I wouldn’t say that Peace Corps is inherently unsafe for anyone. Sexual assault, sadly, and sexual harassment, are issues that tend to have several commonalities. One is sometimes just opportunity. If Volunteers are in a rural area with limited cellphone reception, no independent way to get out of their site, that makes someone a little bit of a sitting duck to someone who knows that. As no Volunteers are in the field now, that gives a unique opportunity to evaluate how safe a site is, how many risk factors exist, what resources someone has access to — safety or support.
There ought to be a law. Implemented.
Casey Frazee Katz: Ten years ago, it surprised me that people we thought would be natural allies in Congress were not necessarily immediate supporters of our efforts. People were afraid that maybe we wanted, in bringing up this issue, to dismantle the Peace Corps. None of us wanted that. We believe in Peace Corps as an institution. We believe that Peace Corps does good work. We just wanted to make sure that Peace Corps was also accountable and supportive. These are reasonable measures. What Sue is talking about in terms of PCMO training is very reasonable. However, there is a pandemic and the current political climate, which can make things more challenging. In the best-case scenario, Peace Corps can be a model for supporting survivors, infrastructure, sustainability, and economy. Legislation is one part; implementation, follow-through, training, and assessment matter, too.
We just wanted to make sure that Peace Corps was also accountable and supportive. These are reasonable measures.
Sue Castle: My point has always been to make the Peace Corps better for Volunteers. I’ve done recruiting events and shared my story. I want people to be aware, but I also want people to be involved. Everybody’s voice needs to be acknowledged, whether you agree with it or not. They’re painful conversations — but necessary, and it’s only going to make the Peace Corps better.
Casey Frazee Katz: Pushing the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act forward is certainly critical. With the advocacy work we did 10 years ago, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, in addition to the Volunteers and returned Volunteers, we were supported by a legal team who helped us prepare for the hearing and get affidavits from survivors. These are complex issues and sometimes require complex solutions.
Susan Howley: The voice of the individual is key in advocacy efforts. Legislators and policymakers tell you that they want data, facts; they want to see the logic. But it’s the real story that brings it home, that really makes that data and research come alive for a legislator and their staff — and makes them care.
WATCH THE ENTIRE DISCUSSION here: Peace Corps Safety and Security: A Decade of Legislation for Change
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 17, 2022.