March 25, 2004 - Dayton Daily News: Lawmakers target safety in Peace Corps

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Special Reports: March 25, 2004: What other News Agencies say about the Peace Corps Safety and Security Hearings: March 25, 2004 - Dayton Daily News: Lawmakers target safety in Peace Corps

By Admin1 (admin) (151.196.183.79) on Monday, March 29, 2004 - 10:25 am: Edit Post

Lawmakers target safety in Peace Corps

Lawmakers target safety in Peace Corps

Lawmakers target safety in Peace Corps

Lawmakers target safety in Peace Corps

Volunteers need protection, House panel told

By Mei-Ling Hopgood

mhopgood@coxnews.com

WASHINGTON | The father of a Peace Corps volunteer who has been missing for three years warned a House panel on Wednesday that more volunteers will be in danger unless the agency improves its handling of volunteer safety, communication and productivity.

Walter R. Poirier, father of volunteer Walter J. Poirier, who has been missing from Bolivia since 2001, was among witnesses who told the House International Relations Committee that in the post-9/11 era and as President Bush pushes to double the number of volunteers worldwide, the government has to be vigilant about protecting its volunteers.

"We believe that the lack of supervision, lack of a meaningful assignment and lack of a proper place to live all contributed to the loss of our son," Poirier said.

"The Peace Corps must realize that the world is not the same place it was 42 years ago and change is necessary to protect its lifeblood, the volunteers, without whom, there is no Peace Corps," he said.

The House committee is expected to vote next week on reforms that would establish an ombudsman to handle safety, medical and other concerns of current and former Peace Corps volunteers, as well as create an independent watchdog that would oversee the agency's operations. International Relations Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill. has proposed a bill called the Peace Corps Safety and Security Act of 2004 that would also require the Peace Corps to maintain its office of safety and security.

The hearing and legislation follow a Dayton Daily News examination on the safety and security of volunteers. The newspaper reported in October that the number of reported assaults 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.

"We come here as supporters of the Peace Corps, admirers of their sacrifice and of the important work they do," Hyde said at the hearing. "It is for that reason that today we wish to inquire into the adequacy of safety and security practices that will govern their assignment in dangerous places around the world."

Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said, "Although life in Peace Corps is not easy, it should be safe."

Other witnesses at the House hearing included Dayton Daily News Editor Jeff Bruce; Jess Ford, an official with the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress; Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association; and Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez.

Vasquez assured the committee that safety is the agency's top priority and said he had established an office of safety and security in 2002, increased the number of security staff members by 80 people and put more emphasis on safety and cross-cultural training. He said in October of 2003 he issued a new protocol clarifying the role of the Peace Corps inspector general in the handling of attacks, from reporting to prosecution.

"While the Peace Corps will never be able to issue an absolute guarantee, we remain committed to developing optimum conditions for a safe and fulfilling experience for every Peace Corps volunteer," Vasquez said. "Safety and security issues are fully integrated in all aspects of volunteer recruitment, training and service, with an emphasis on volunteers taking personal responsibility at all times and assimilating into communities."

Bruce, who was asked by the committee to testify about the Daily News examination, said many of the 350 volunteers interviewed by the paper even crime victims felt good about their service. However, he said the newspaper found that the extent of the safety problem has been "disguised for decades, partly because the assaults occurred thousands of miles away, partly because the Peace Corps has made little effort to publicize them and partly because the agency deliberately kept people from finding out while emphasizing the positive aspects of service."

A 2002 GAO investigation also found vast under-reporting of crime and problems with insufficient data collection, housing and support for volunteers. Ford, who oversaw that investigation, confirmed the Peace Corps has begun making improvements to its data collection, training and staff handling of safety concerns, but the efforts are incomplete and the results unknown.

Peace Corps Inspector General Charles Smith said he supports Hyde's plan to make his office more independent of the Peace Corps. Currently, the Peace Corps director chooses an inspector general, who is charged with being a watchdog for the agency and investigating safety incidents. Hyde has proposed requiring 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.

Smith said he welcomed more independence and freedom from Peace Corps hiring limitations. Currently his staff is subjected to the Peace Corps-wide rule that limits most staff members to five years. Some Peace Corps officials and volunteers have complained that the limitation leads to a lack of institutional memory of safety problems and solutions.

Hyde's bill would waive that rule permanently for the inspector general and staff members who have direct responsibility for the safety of volunteers. Congress has passed measures the past two years to temporarily do so.

Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, testified that some former volunteers were concerned that too much focus on safety and security could take resources and money away from the agency's mission and President Bush's intention to double the number of volunteers. The former Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand said he felt safe during his service because he was integrated into his community. However, he said he thought the idea of an ombudsman could be helpful.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., a former Peace Corps volunteer, dropped by at the end of the hearing to emphasize the importance of preserving the Peace Corps.

"I really want to encourage the committee, urge the committee not to change the nature of the Peace Corps so that essentially you have a fortress of American Peace Corps volunteers," he said. "That would destroy it."

Contact Mei-Ling Hopgood in the Washington bureau at 202-887-8328




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Story Source: Dayton Daily News

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

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