February 25, 2004 - Dayton Daily News: Peace Corps hearings in March

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Special Reports: March 22, 2004: Hearings on the Peace Corps Safety and Security Act of 2003: February 25, 2004 - Dayton Daily News: Peace Corps hearings in March

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Peace Corps hearings in March

Peace Corps hearings in March

Peace Corps hearings in March

To examine safety, security of volunteers

By Mei-Ling Hopgood
Wednesday, February 25, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Senate and House committees that oversee the Peace Corps have scheduled hearings in March that will examine the agency's response to the safety and security of its volunteers.

The House Committee on International Relations has scheduled a March 17 hearing on a proposal to establish an independent watchdog for the agency and an ombudsman who would deal with safety, health and other concerns of volunteers, former volunteers and their families. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also will hold a hearing March 31 on the overall safety of Peace Corps volunteers.

Ohio's Republican Sens. George Voinovich and Mike DeWine requested Senate hearings in response to publication last year of a Dayton Daily News investigation examining the issue. The newspaper reported that the number of reported assault incidents from 1991-2002 had more than doubled, yet the agency continued to put many volunteers in danger by sending them to live alone in risky areas without adequate housing, supervision or a job that kept them busy. The series also found that the agency omitted many crime victims from its published statistics and ignored or downplayed some volunteers' concerns.

"The Dayton Daily News series on the Peace Corps revealed some serious questions about safety and security for volunteers that led me to call for a Foreign Relations Committee hearing to further examine the problems," said Voinovich, who sits on the Foreign Relations committee. "At a time when the Peace Corps is seeking to expand its presence and recruit more volunteers, it's the right time to look at ways that we might enhance security for the men and women serving in it."

Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez has said security is the agency's No. 1 priority, and that officials are dedicated to keeping volunteers safe.

"If requested, the director is prepared to share the Peace Corps' record and the agency's ongoing commitment to safety and security," Peace Corps spokeswoman Jennifer Borgen said Tuesday.

Vasquez maintains that the agency has made many recent improvements to enhance safety, including establishing a new Office of Safety and Security, increasing safety training for volunteers, improving supervision of volunteers, collecting better crime statistics and authorizing 80 safety and security positions while improving management of security worldwide.

The Peace Corps has more than 7,500 volunteers in about 71 countries.

Currently, the Peace Corps director chooses an inspector general, who is charged with being a watchdog for the agency and investigating safety incidents. That would change under a proposal by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., the chairman of the House International Relations Committee. He wants the 1978 law that established inspector generals at most federal agencies changed to require that the president instead choose the Peace Corps' inspector general, who will then be approved by the Senate. That official also would be required to send his or her reports to Congress, which is not required now.

A more independent inspector general would better serve the interests of volunteers and keep Congress better informed about the Peace Corps operations and expansion plan, House officials said.

The idea for an ombudsman came from a Daily News interview with former Dayton Congressman and Peace Corps volunteer Tony Hall, the House officials said. The ombudsman would handle complaints regarding safety, medical issues, separation and access to records.

"One of the issues identified as a problem has been the difficulty that some Peace Corps volunteers and relatives of Peace Corps volunteers have had in dealing with the agency when confronted with" safety, health and other problems, said Sam Stratman, a spokesman for Hyde.

Stratman said the House hearing also will examine the issue of safety of volunteers generally, in light of President Bush's post-Sept. 11 proposal to double the number of volunteers by 2007.

Witnesses for both the House and Senate hearings have not been identified. Marcie Ridgway, a spokeswoman for Voinovich, said witnesses at the Senate hearing are unlikely to be finalized until just before the hearings. However, Ridgway said those being considered include: the director of the Peace Corps; officials from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress that conducted an investigation into a missing volunteer in Bolivia and other Peace Corps safety issues; the National Peace Corps Association; and volunteers from Ohio and around the nation.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity for senators to hear directly from Peace Corps volunteers," Sen. DeWine said. "It's important that the voices of the individual volunteers be heard. Our young people are one of our greatest resources, and when we send them abroad to volunteer, they should have a reasonable expectation that they will be safe."

Contact Mei-Ling Hopgood at (202) 887-8328.

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Story Source: Dayton Daily News

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Congress; Safety and Security of Volunteers



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