June 23, 2004: Headlines: Congress: Legislation: Dayton Daily News: Dayton Daily News reports on Senate's Peace Corps Safety Hearings

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Library: Peace Corps: Legislation : Legislation: June 22, 2004: Headlines: Congress: Legislation: PCOL Exclusive: Report from the Senate's Peace Corps Safety Hearings : June 23, 2004: Headlines: Congress: Legislation: Dayton Daily News: Dayton Daily News reports on Senate's Peace Corps Safety Hearings

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Dayton Daily News reports on Senate's Peace Corps Safety Hearings

Dayton Daily News reports on Senate's Peace Corps Safety Hearings

Dayton Daily News reports on Senate's Peace Corps Safety Hearings

Peace Corps reforms needed, senator says

Hearing highlights paper's findings on safety of volunteers

By Andrew Mollison

Cox News Service

WASHINGTON | Legislation is needed to strengthen the safety and security of Peace Corps volunteers, said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., after presiding over a Senate hearing Tuesday.

Coleman, who chairs the Foreign Relations subcommittee that drafts Peace Corps legislation, said he expects the Senate to pass a bill that would establish an ombudsman to respond to medical and safety concerns of volunteers, former volunteers and their families, and would require that the agency's inspector general be appointed by the president, rather than the agency's director.

The legislation was submitted by Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

The bill would also permanently authorize the agency's new Office of Safety and Security, and waive the agency's five-year term limit for employees who work in safety, security, medical care or for the agency's inspector general.

The same legislation passed the House by voice vote this year after the House Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on concerns raised last year by a report from the nonpartisan General Accounting Office and by articles in the Dayton Daily News.

The Daily News reported that the number of reported assaults on volunteers more than doubled from 1991 to 2002, yet the agency continued to send many volunteers to live alone in risky areas without adequate housing, supervision or a clearly defined, full-time job.

The newspaper's account said a volunteer dies in service every two months, based on 260 deaths since the founding of the Peace Corps in 1961.

Gerald H. Vasquez, director of the Peace Corps, told the panel the statistic is "a misrepresentation," saying that only three of those deaths came after his arrival at the Peace Corps in February 2002.

"The administration does not believe that this legislation is in the best interest of this agency or will significantly improve volunteer safety," he said, listing recent internal reforms.

"(The newspaper's) findings . . . have compelled us to take a close look at measures in place to ensure the security of our volunteers," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, whose persistent requests for a hearing were praised by Coleman. "They have also led us to discuss ways that we might enhance these measures."

Several witnesses supported Vasquez's statement to the panel that his agency has done a great deal during the past 26 months to improve safety and security and the growth of the program.

"We feel the Peace Corps is definitely taking action," said Jess Ford, who directed the GAO study in 2002 and a limited follow-up this year.

But he said the GAO hasn't investigated whether new policies drawn up in Washington are filtering down to the more than 7,500 Peace Corps volunteers serving in more than 70 countries. He cautioned the panel: "The inspector general of the Peace Corps is finding problems in the field similar to those we found in 2002."

"I am pleased by the responsiveness of the agency to this issue," Coleman said after the hearing. "But I think we will follow up with legislation that will nail down some details."

Coleman said new safety and security mandates "must be adequately funded." But he said he doesn't anticipate any significant progress during this year's budget fight toward President Bush's goal of doubling the number of volunteers by 2007.

In his written testimony, Vasquez raised three objections to the DeWine-Durbin bill:

An ombudsman would be "duplicative" of his agency's complaint and grievance process.

A presidentially appointed inspector general might compete with the agency for limited Peace Corps funds.

The director already has enough flexibility to waive the five-year term limit for key employees.

However, Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, said the ombudsman proposal was endorsed by 72 percent of the more than 250 members who responded last week to a short survey on its Web site.

He said 70 percent also favored funding a GAO study of how waivers of the five-year rule affect "recruitment, health, safety and productive work assignments."

But they split evenly on the usefulness of an independent inspector general.

Though Voinovich said "steps must also be taken to establish regular, frequent contact with Peace Corps volunteers," the respondents to the association's poll overwhelmingly opposed mandating the number of site visits to be made by a supervisor or requiring all volunteers to have cell phones, satellite phones, or access by radio or Internet.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., one of the first former volunteers to be elected to Congress, asked whether it would be safer to assign pairs of volunteers in risky areas. However, every witness opposed the idea.

"I think if I'd been housed with (other Peace Corps volunteers), I would have spent too much time with them," said Gladys Maloy, whose 27 months of service in Romania ended in June 2002. She said that a volunteer who is "integrated into the community" is not only safer, but in a better position to "promote all the great values for which our country stands."

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Story Source: Dayton Daily News

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