Steven Saum posted an articleThe Peace Corps Reauthorization Act now moves forward. see more
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act now moves forward. It would bring critical reforms to better protect Volunteers and put Peace Corps on the path toward a budget to bolster the number of Volunteers around the world. Though when it comes to health insurance and the Volunteer readjustment allowance, today’s changes provide a little less support.
By Jonathan Pearson
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (H.R. 1456), bipartisan legislation introduced by Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) and fellow Representative Garret Graves (R-LA), cleared its first significant hurdle on September 30th, when the House Foreign Affairs Committee moved the bill out of committee with a favorable vote.
The committee advanced the bill with a strong bipartisan showing in a vote of 44 to 4. Eighteen Republicans joined all committee Democrats in supporting the legislation, which will next go to the House Education and Labor Committee for review and then to the House floor for further consideration.
In bringing the legislation to the committee today, Garamendi noted that in communities across the globe, Volunteers have served in education, agriculture, and public health programs. “Peace Corps Volunteers are the face of America in these communities, building trust and goodwill,” he said. And the legislation would provide additional federal funding and resources “to advance the Peace Corps’ mission around the world and better support current, returning, and former Peace Corps Volunteers.”
Committee Approves Amended Version of Legislation
While the Garamendi-Graves legislation was approved, it came in the form of a substitute amendment presented by Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY), which contained significant additions and other substantive changes in the bill’s original language. ( Read the original legislation here. And see the full amendment here.)
“This bill helps realize President John F. Kennedy’s vision of Americans ready to serve their nation in new and innovative ways.”
— Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY)
In opening debate on the measure, Chairman Meeks said, “This bill helps realize President John F. Kennedy’s vision of Americans ready to serve their nation in new and innovative ways.” Meeks also spoke to the effort by the committee to engage various stakeholders in crafting the legislation, including National Peace Corps Association.
The lead Republican filling in for Ranking Member Michael McCaul (who represents Texas and was attending to a family health matter) was Ann Wagner (R-MO), who also expressed support for the legislation. “Many members of this committee represent Peace Corps Volunteers,” Wagner said. “We are grateful for their service and we honor the many sacrifices they make in leaving behind their friends and their families to make the world a better place.”
“H.R. 1456 makes long overdue changes and updates to one of America’s best diplomatic and humanitarian programs.”
— Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY)
Wagner was joined by fellow committee member Andy Barr (R-KY) in expressing support for the bill. “H.R. 1456 makes long overdue changes and updates to one of America’s best diplomatic and humanitarian programs,” Barr said. Barr also praised the robust work of the leaders of the Kentucky Peace Corps Association, an NPCA affiliate group of returned Volunteers. Barr singled out the impact of Jack and Angene Wilson, who both served in Liberia in the 1960s, and Will and Amy Glasscock, who both served in Indonesia within the past decade. “I am personally very much indebted to the Glasscocks and the Wilsons in particular for their engagement with my office and their advocacy for the Peace Corps,” Barr said. “They are really terrific ambassadors for our United States as they promote the Peace Corps and its mission.”
In a press release issued October 4, Rep. Garamendi thanked Chairman Meeks and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for passing this critically important legislation with strong bipartisan support — and he noted the powerful impact that serving as a Volunteer in Ethiopia had for him and his wife, Patti Garamendi, who also served in the Peace Corps.
“Congress has not reauthorized the Peace Corps in over 20 years. It is vital for the ‘Peace Corps Reauthorization Act’ to become law so the Peace Corps can redeploy Volunteers worldwide once safe and prudent to do so and realize President Kennedy’s vision of generations of young Americans ready to serve their nation and make the world a better place.”
—Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA)
“Congress has not reauthorized the Peace Corps in over 20 years,” Garamendi noted. “It is vital for the ‘Peace Corps Reauthorization Act’ to become law so the Peace Corps can redeploy Volunteers worldwide once safe and prudent to do so and realize President Kennedy’s vision of generations of young Americans ready to serve their nation and make the world a better place … I will continue to work tirelessly until the ‘Peace Corps Reauthorization Act’ is on President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.”
Sexual assault is a central concern — as it needs to be.
Along with high praise and the importance of the Peace Corps, today’s debate also brought renewed focus to the deep concerns about Volunteers who have been victims of sexual assault.
While lawmakers noted important reforms are included in the legislation, committee members cited recent journalistic investigations and Peace Corps Inspector General reports as far back as 2013 indicating that sexual assault in the agency remains as a serious problem — and that more needs to be done.
Citing the April 22, 2021 in-depth investigative story in USA Today on sexual assault within the Peace Corps, Rep. Wagner said, “Tragically, one out of every three Volunteers who finished service in 2019 reported experiencing a sexual assault; Volunteers have also reported a hesitancy to describe these cases to the Peace Corps due to fear of retaliation or criticism. This is devastating.”
“Tragically, one out of every three Volunteers who finished service in 2019 reported experiencing a sexual assault; Volunteers have also reported a hesitancy to describe these cases to the Peace Corps due to fear of retaliation or criticism. This is devastating.”
— Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO)
An amendment introduced by Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) proposed withholding agency funding outlined in the legislation until the Peace Corps satisfied all recommendations made by the agency Inspector General to further address sexual assault mitigation strategies. Noting that no Volunteers are currently serving overseas, Perry said, “If we are going to do it, now is the time.”
The Perry amendment was defeated by a vote of 26 to 21 along party lines. In opposing the amendment, Chairman Meeks noted the amendment was issued 10 minutes before the start of the committee meeting. He said staff reached out to the Office of the Inspector General for Peace Corps, which said in part that interruptions in funding could interfere with the agency’s ability to satisfy all IG recommendations. Meeks also cited reforms in the amended bill — such as language to protect Volunteers from reprisals or retaliation, and the extension of the Sexual Assault Advisory Council to continue its work through 2025 — as examples of reforms that further address Volunteer safety and security.
The committee’s very necessary focus on addressing sexual assault in the Peace Corps comes just days after National Peace Corps Association hosted a global conference for the Peace Corps community that included a panel tackling safety and security for Volunteers 10 years after the passage of the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act. A key takeaway in that panel discussion, too: Peace Corps needs to do better — but there is never a time when the agency can check off a box and say the work is done.
A better and stronger Peace Corps
Following Thursday’s committee action, National Peace Corps Association released this statement from President and CEO Glenn Blumhorst:
“This is a very good day for the Peace Corps and its future. While we are continuing to review and consider some of the alterations made to the original version of the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act, all of the foundational elements of this landmark legislation remain. We want to thank Chairman Meeks, Ranking Member McCaul, Representative Wagner, committee staff, and all members of the committee who voted in favor of H.R. 1456 and took this first, critical step toward passing this legislation. From protecting whistleblowers to providing Peace Corps the robust funding it needs to help our country re-engage with the world, these are important reforms.
“To our community and other friends of the Peace Corps, make no mistake. Today’s action was a significant step, but it is only one step in a lengthy process to pass this legislation in both chambers of Congress and send the bill to the president for his signature. Every individual who believes in a stronger and better and well-resourced Peace Corps needs to help us pass H.R. 1456.”
—Glenn Blumhorst, NPCA President & CEO
“We are most grateful to our RPCV friend, Representative John Garamendi, his bipartisan counterpart Garret Graves, and their hardworking staff for their months-long dedication and determination in which they consulted, collaborated, and created this comprehensive Peace Corps legislation. Representative Garamendi has often noted that he wants his legislation to be about and for the Peace Corps Volunteer. In so many important ways related to health and safety, Volunteer and RPCV support, strengthened reporting guidelines and professional resources, and respecting and honoring Peace Corps service, this legislation advances those causes. It supports those Volunteers forced home prematurely by the pandemic who want to return to their service as soon as possible, and also supports the next wave of Peace Corps Volunteer recruits who anxiously await word on their opportunity to serve our nation.
“To our community and other friends of the Peace Corps, make no mistake. Today’s action was a significant step, but it is only one step in a lengthy process to pass this legislation in both chambers of Congress and send the bill to the president for his signature. Every individual who believes in a stronger and better and well-resourced Peace Corps needs to help us pass H.R. 1456.”
What has changed in the bill?
The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021 was originally introduced in March. Today, items from the original bill that were altered include the following:
Recommended Peace Corps Appropriations: While the amendment retains language supporting regular, annual calls for increased funding for the Peace Corps reaching $550 million through Fiscal Year 2024, the new language drops the recommended target of $600 million in funding by Fiscal Year 2025.
Volunteer Readjustment Allowance: The amendment would set the current Volunteer readjustment allowance ($375/month) as the statutory minimum allowance for Volunteers going forward. It removes the proposal to mandate raising that minimum to $417, retaining the agency’s authority to determine when the allowance should be increased.
Post-Service Health Coverage for Returned Volunteers: The traditional period in which the Peace Corps pays for post-service health insurance for returning Volunteers would be increased from 30 days to 60 days under the amendment. That’s one month less than the 90 days proposed in the original Garamendi-Graves bill.
Protection of Peace Corps Volunteers Against Reprisals or Retaliation: Language in the Garamendi-Graves legislation pertaining to whistleblower protection has been amended so that it now outlines recommended procedures and policies to protect Volunteers from acts of reprisal or retaliation.
What has not changed in the bill?
Items from the original bill that were unchanged include the following:
Workers Compensation Increase: The Meeks amendment retains language calling for an increase in the rate of compensation for RPCVs who come home and are unable to work due to service related illness or injury. This provision is a primary reason why the legislation will next be considered by the House Education and Labor Committee.
GAO Reporting on Mental Health: The amendment retains language requesting a report by the Government Accountability Office on the status and possible improvements related to mental health services provided to RPCVs upon coming home from service. Better mental health support is one of the community-driven recommendations NPCA provides in the report “Peace Corps Connect to the Future.”
Menstrual Equity Act: The amendment continues to include text of H.R. 1467, the Menstrual Equity in the Peace Corps Act, legislation introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY). This legislation requires the Peace Corps to ensure access to menstrual products for Volunteers who require them, either by increasing stipends or providing the products for affected Volunteers.
Anti-Malarial Drugs: The amendment retains language stating that the Peace Corps shall consult with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on recommendations in prescribing malaria prophylaxis, and that the agency shall address training of medical personnel in malaria countries on side effects of such medications.
Respect for Peace Corps Volunteers Act: The amendment continues to include text of H.R. 4188, the Respect for Peace Corps Volunteers Act, legislation introduced by Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) and Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA). This would confirm that an allowable use of the Peace Corps name, official seal, and emblem would include its use at gravesites or in death notices.
What’s been added to the bill?
Items that were added to the original bill include the following:
Increased Duration for Non-Competitive Eligibility (NCE): The amendment retains language in the Garamendi-Graves bill that would protect the full NCE benefit for new Volunteers should they be unable to work due to illness or injury upon returning home, or if there is a federal government shutdown or hiring freeze. The amendment would also extend the general length of NCE from one year to two years.
Extension of Sexual Assault Advisory Council: The Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 created the Peace Corps’ Sexual Assault Advisory Council. In 2018, the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act extended the work of of the council through 2023. The Meeks amendment would extend the work of the council through 2025.
Peace Corps Service Deployments in the U.S.: Given the emergency deployment of Peace Corps Volunteers in response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the service by Volunteers to assist the Federal Emergency Management Agency with COVID relief in 2021, the Meeks amendment would codify into law the allowance of future Volunteer deployment in the U.S. at the request of another federal agency.
Expanded Language on Virtual Service Opportunities: The amendment expands language regarding virtual volunteer opportunities and incorporates it into the Peace Corps Act. It notes that this expands opportunities to recruit individuals who face barriers to serving physically in a country outside the U.S.
Additional Reporting Requirements: Along with the reporting requirements already outlined in the Garamendi-Graves legislation, the amendment includes additional reporting requirements on Peace Corps guidelines and standards used to evaluate the mental health of Peace Corps applicants prior to service. It calls for more detailed information on the number of evacuations due to medical or mental health circumstances, and associated costs.
READ MORE: Text of the full amended version of H.R. 1456 approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee on September 30, 2021.
YOU MIGHT ALSO BE INTERESTED IN: Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings and NPCA President and CEO Glenn Blumhorst: “After the fall of Afghanistan, we need the rise the Peace Corps.” Guest essay in The Hill on September 30, 2021.
Story published Sept. 30, 2021. Updated October 6, 2021 to include press release by John Garamendi.
Jonathan Pearson is the Director of Advocacy for National Peace Corps Association. If you’d like to get involved in advocating for H.R. 1456, email him: firstname.lastname@example.org
Steven Saum posted an articleA statement from the Chair of the Board of Directors of National Peace Corps Association. see more
An in-depth work of investigative journalism has shone light on a horrific problem. There are steps we can take now. A statement from the Chair of the Board of Directors of National Peace Corps Association.
By Maricarmen Smith-Martinez
Today USA Today published an in-depth investigative piece chronicling the experiences of multiple women who have been victims of sexual assault while serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. Their stories are devastating. And the statistics cited in the article about the prevalence of sexual assault are profoundly disturbing.
We owe it to these women to read their stories — and to truly hear what they are saying. Those of us who have been victims of sexual assault know firsthand that it takes immense courage to come forward, especially given how the initial reports of these women were handled. And let us be unequivocal: There must be zero tolerance when it comes to sexual misconduct within the ranks of Peace Corps staff.
We owe it to all Volunteers — past, present, and future — as well as their families, to ensure that Peace Corps does better.
Peace Corps Acting Director Carol Spahn issued a statement today outlining how the agency is addressing these very serious issues. All of the incidents chronicled in the story have been referred to the Peace Corps Inspector General for investigation. And Spahn has made sure that returned Volunteers know they can reach out directly to the Inspector General, as well as to the agency.
We underscore that call throughout the Peace Corps community: We must ensure your voices are heard. And on behalf of myself, the board and staff at National Peace Corps Association, we want you to know that you can reach out to us as well. We are here to listen — and to support you.
Following the Letter of the Law
Just a few weeks ago, at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps, former Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet recounted once again how, while she served as a Volunteer in Western Samoa in the 1980s, she was a victim of repeated sexual assault by a Peace Corps staff member. And again, she recounted how the Peace Corps failed to take action.
Since that time we know that progress has been made. The Kate Puzey Act led to the establishment of a sexual assault advisory council in 2013. The Sam Farr/Nick Castle Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act was passed in 2018 and includes strengthened criteria for hiring overseas doctors and medical support staff and lays down a number of critical requirements:
- evaluation of all medical staff for compliance to all relevant policies and guidelines
- accessible health and safety information for Peace Corps applicants before they are assigned to a particular country
- designated staff at each post to serve victims of sexual assault
- authority for the Sexual Assault Advisory Council to conduct case reviews.
In this moment, when there are no Volunteers in the field, it provides an opportunity and a responsibility for Peace Corps to conduct a thorough review of the Farr/Castle law and other previously passed legislation to ensure full compliance in all aspects. We are very concerned that this is not the case at this time.
The statement issued today by the Peace Corps notes that a new Security Incident Management System is being deployed. We know from conversations with the agency that, in lay terms, this will integrate systems for reporting and tracking sexual assaults and other crimes. That is part of the solution. A broader effort on implementing better tech-driven systems to serve Volunteers and communities is also underway while there are no Volunteers in the field. But, again, this is only part of the solution.
We Must Protect Whistleblowers
What is also part of the solution: legislation introduced to the House of Representatives on March 1 — H.R. 1456 — which provides whistleblower protection for Volunteers. As noted by bill sponsor John Garamendi (D-CA), the bill “Extends whistleblower and anti-retaliatory protections that currently apply to Peace Corps contractors to Peace Corps Volunteers, including protections against reprisals by any Peace Corps employee, Volunteer supervisor, or outside contractor.” This legislation also directs the Peace Corps and U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security to update plans and protocols for Peace Corps Volunteer security support and protection in foreign countries.
As Emma Tremblay, one of the women who shares her heartbreaking story in the USA Today piece notes, passing this legislation is one way to show support for her and other Volunteers.
We know that beyond this legislation much work remains to be done. And we know that it is our responsibility as engaged members of the Peace Corps community to ensure that efforts continue. After all, it is in the mission of National Peace Corps Association to ensure that Peace Corps is the best that it can be. An agency where sexual assault metastasized in recent years has tremendous work to do.
It shouldn’t escape notice that April is sexual assault awareness month. This is not something that we should think about in the abstract. Every victim of an assault — like the women who share their stories in this article — is a person whose life has been deeply harmed.
It should not escape notice that only this week Kathy Buller, Peace Corps Inspector General — and executive chair for the Council of the Inspector General on Integrity and Efficiency’s legislation committee — was testifying before Congress regarding the importance of the independence and reinforcement of the work by inspectors general throughout the government.
And it absolutely should not escape notice that, while this particular USA Today piece focuses on the stories of women who are white, Peace Corps and others must ensure that victims who are people of color receive the full support throughout their service and afterward. Racial justice and equity demand it.
Let’s take to heart what legal scholar Catharine MacKinnnon wrote in The Atlantic two years ago, reflecting on the rise of the #MeToo movement: “Conceive a revolution without violence against domination and aggression. Envision a moment of truth and a movement of transformation for the sexually violated toward a more equal, therefore a more peaceful and just, world.”
Maricarmen Smith-Martinez is Chair of the Board of Directors for National Peace Corps Association. She served as a Volunteer in Costa Rica 2006–08.
Joanne Roll It is important to note the Office of the Inspector General of the Peace Corps has been investigating the problems associated with implementation of these laws for ten years. There is one page... see more It is important to note the Office of the Inspector General of the Peace Corps has been investigating the problems associated with implementation of these laws for ten years. There is one page which lists all the reports done. The OIG has no enfocement power. Here is a link to that page: www.peacecorps.gov/about/inspect...1 year ago
Communications Intern 2 posted an articleBipartisanship is a ‘state of being,’ said Senator Johnny Isakson. see more
Bipartisanship is “a state of being,” said Johnny Isakson
By Catherine Gardner
Photo courtesy office of Johnny Isakson
“The dedicated men and women of the U.S. Peace Corps work hard to help communities and foster goodwill around the world,” U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson said in 2018. The occasion was important but not exactly celebratory: Isakson was co-sponsoring introduction of the Nick Castle Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act — bipartisan legislation named in honor of a Volunteer from Brentwood, California, who lost his life at age 23 due to inadequate health care while serving in China in 2013.
Isakson, a Republican from Georgia first elected to the Senate in 2004, had long been a champion for Volunteers. He served as a sponsor for the 2011 Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, named in honor of a Volunteer who was murdered in Benin; the law instituted reforms that included a comprehensive sexual assault policy with risk-reduction and response training. Isakson’s support of the Peace Corps extended to advocating for robust funding for the agency and serving as Republican lead on the annual Peace Corps funding “Dear Colleague” letter. For his advocacy on behalf of the Peace Corps community, in 2013 National Peace Corps Association presented him with the Peace Corps Congressional Leadership Award.
As a legislator, Isakson earned a reputation for promoting civility and honesty in the realm of politics. He called bipartisanship “a state of being.” He was a strong force on the education committee, advocating for President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation.
He arrived in Washington having served in the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate. He was appointed to the U.S. House of Representatives to fill Newt Gingrich’s seat after Gingrich stepped down. He had served in the Georgia Air National Guard before beginning work for Northside Realty, where he climbed the ranks until he became president of the company and served in that capacity for over 20 years.
Several years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease but continued to serve in the Senate. He resigned in 2019, during his third term, citing health concerns. He was born in 1944 and died in December 2021 at age 76.
This remembrance appears in the Spring-Summer edition of WorldView magazine.
Catherine Gardner is an intern with WorldView. She is a student at Lafayette College.
Orrin Luc posted an articleProgress, failures, and what’s on the horizon: a conversation convened for Peace Corps Connect 2021 see more
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.
Braeden Waddell posted an articleParents of Nick Castle, who died while serving as a Volunteer, advocate for a better Peace Corps. see more
The parents of Nick Castle, who died while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China, trace how they began their ongoing work to ensure that Peace Corps lives up to the ideals that their son believed in.
By Sue and Dave Castle
Photo: Dave and Sue Castle flanking Senator Bob Corker (R-TN)
Sue and I never thought of becoming involved in politics or advocacy until our son Nick died while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China on February 7, 2013.
Nothing could have been further from our minds.
For all of you who have suffered a significant loss of a loved one, you can understand grief and pain. There is no preparation for the loss of your child.
After considerable effort to get the facts and determine how Nick could have died while being cared for by a Peace Corps Medical Officer, we became committed to making sure no other family would have to lose their child, parent or sibling due to medical incompetence and negligence.
It was apparent the Peace Corps that Nick joined failed to follow the guidelines and procedures established by their own policies and practices. We were surprised to learn there had been no update in legislation pertaining to health care since the Peace Corps was established by Congress in 1961.
Our reform efforts began almost four years ago to change the culture of the Peace Corps and re-define the medical services provided to volunteers.
So where do you begin?
We began by reaching out to our Senators in California: Senator Boxer and Senator Feinstein. And we didn’t begin with a direct phone or in-person conversation with our Senators.
We had no experience in lobbying. One of the early lessons learned is if you are willing to give up and go away no one is going to stop you. But if you are persistent, continue to write and call Congressional offices, people begin to recognize you are serious and committed to addressing a problem.
You also must have some suggestions for your Congressional representative as to what is needed to improve the current condition.
Putting a face and a voice to the cause is so important to advancing your efforts. That is something that cannot be duplicated in an e-mail or phone call.
It is not always about a political party either. We are not constituents of the two most significant Congressional people who offered their help and committed to our efforts. It happens to be two Republicans: Representative Ted Poe and Senator Bob Corker. Their involvement comes from realizing a need for the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act of 2018.
We also worked with the previous Director of the Peace Corps, the interim Acting Director of the Peace Corps, and now the current Director, Dr. Jody Olsen. Director Olsen sees the necessity for the legislation. During our recent meeting with her, she expressed her full support and commitment to see the needed changes included in the legislation are implemented.
This, along with the partnership with the National Peace Corps Association, has made our goal a reality. There are countless individuals who have worked towards seeing this bill pass through Congress. We are almost there. We realize this bill does not include all the issues currently affecting Peace Corps Volunteers, mainly raising the disability rate from GS7 to GS 11; however, we remain committed to working for reform. This bill is just the first step.
The Peace Corps’ Mission
To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
The Fourth Goal:
To be supportive, show compassion and advocate for Volunteers who may have had a different experience.
The Fourth Goal was started by us to create awareness of healthcare issues and act as a resource for volunteers and their families. We are in the infancy stage of developing this organization. There is a need to advocate and support Peace Corps Volunteers who return from service with issues not easily remedied by traditional Peace Corps resources. We hope to be able to work with Peace Corps on policy and with Congress to develop legislative measures. We hope to work with current and RPCVs to identify not only areas of concern but also positive experiences to learn from and share.
We have learned that two voices are more powerful than one. Imagine what can be done with a thousand voices.
Connecting with another human being face to face with honesty and sincerity makes a difference.
Doing something because it is the right thing to do. Isn’t that what the Peace Corps is all about?
SUPPORT YOUR COMMUNITY:
Write to your members of Congress urging final passage of Peace Corps health/safety legislation and adoption of the House version of the bill, while also noting more work needs to be done in the future to address the needs of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who come home with service-related illnesses or injuries.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the National Peace Corps Association or its members.
Story updated with copy edits June 3, 2021.
ArticleA letter to the Peace Corps community see more
A letter to the Peace Corps community
By Glenn Blumhorst
We were heartbroken to learn the details of the tragic and avoidable death of Bernice Heiderman in January 2018, when she was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Comoros. A New York Times article published in recent days reveals that she died from undiagnosed malaria — and that had she received timely treatment, she could have made a full recovery.
On behalf of all of us in the Peace Corps community, we send deepest sympathies and sincere condolences to Bernice’s family. We grieve for her loss, all the more painful because this should not have happened.
Bea, as she was known to friends and family, was 24 years old. She was the youngest of three children of Julie and William Heiderman and hailed from Inverness, Illinois. She was serving as a Volunteer teaching English and leading a Junior Exploration Club in Comoros. She joined the Peace Corps just one month after graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and had previously worked as a volunteer at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. She brought an optimism and care to her service and was proud of the students she taught and led.
If we’re to honor the work she was doing, we must, for starters, renew a commitment to ensure that the Peace Corps does better when addressing the health needs of Volunteers — particularly when it comes to the treatment of known, familiar diseases with remedies. The future redeployment of Peace Corps Volunteers must include measures to review, learn from, and prevent future tragedies.
The current challenge of suspended Peace Corps programming provides a tremendous opportunity — and clear responsibility — for the agency to engage global health experts, Congress, and the broad Peace Corps community in a transparent dialogue on where improvements in volunteer health care are needed and what is needed to implement those improvements. This includes a thorough review and implementation of health care recommendations made by the Peace Corps Inspector General and included in recent legislation.
As Times writer Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports, when Bernice Heiderman died in January 2018, legislation was already being prepared for introduction in Congress to address the failure of Peace Corps medical staff to prevent the death of Volunteer Nick Castle in China in 2013. Backed by National Peace Corps Association, the Sam Farr and Nick Castle Peace Corps Reform Act of 2018 was passed unanimously in the House and Senate, and was signed into law in October 2018. It provided a number of improvements to Peace Corps operations, including mandating strengthened criteria in the hiring of overseas medical personnel, reauthorization and new provisions to further address agency actions to support Volunteers victimized by sexual assault or other forms of violence, and further transparency to assist individuals in making informed decisions about their preferences for Peace Corps service.
That legislation was passed in part thanks to the hard work by Sue and Dave Castle, Nick’s parents. They didn’t want other families to face a similar fate. But that legislation was only a start.
Bernice Heiderman is one of 30 volunteers who died during service over the past decade. Even one death is too many, particularly when it is preventable.
We recognize the heroic and tireless work of the Peace Corps to safely evacuate more than 7,000 Volunteers from their posts last March in the face of deteriorating international travel and border restrictions. We are proud of the tremendous contributions and unfinished business of those Volunteers in seeking to build peace and understanding around the world. And the COVID-19 pandemic offers stark evidence that there is much work to do in service to improving the human condition across the globe. Volunteers’ service is needed as much as ever, in a spirit of solidarity and shared responsibility for one another. And we must commit to the care and well-being of these Volunteers in a changed world.
Glenn Blumhorst is President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association.