Peace Corps lacks certain sexual assault prevention measures says OSC

 

Office of Special Counsel Finds Despite Progress, Peace Corps Lacks Certain Sexual Assault Prevention Measures,
Encourages Clear Policies to Protect Volunteers

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Jill Gerber, (202) 804‐7065; jgerber@osc.gov

WASHINGTON, D.C./Jan. 5, 2018 – The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) concluded that despite significant progress, the Peace Corps has failed to implement certain sexual assault prevention measures. OSC also encouraged clearer policies and training to better protect volunteers.  The conclusions came after the Peace Corps completed a report prompted by whistleblower disclosures to OSC.

“I have determined that while the report contains the information required by statute, some of the findings are not reasonable,” Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner wrote to President Trump.   “I encourage the Peace Corps to establish clear, consistent, and effective policies to ensure the prevention of sexual assault and other crimes against volunteers, timely responses to safety risks, and the provision of adequate counseling services to volunteers who are sexually assaulted during their service.”

OSC sought a Peace Corps investigation of concerns brought to OSC by Kellie Greene, the first and former director of the Peace Corps Office of Victim Advocacy (OVA).   She alleged that the Peace Corps failed to: (1) take appropriate action against volunteers who engage in sexual misconduct; (2) train host families and co‐workers to prevent sexual assault; (3) take action to protect volunteers while traveling; (4) provide adequate counseling services to volunteers who are sexually assaulted; and (5) provide necessary updates regarding sexual assault cases to OVA.

While the Peace Corps reported that it has taken measures to ensure that volunteers who are victims of sexual assault receive adequate counseling services and has taken action to address risks to volunteers while traveling, OSC found key shortcomings with the report’s findings.  One, the report confirmed that volunteers who have reportedly engaged in sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, have been allowed to resign or interrupt service without any documentation in their volunteer records. This has resulted in at least one case in which the Peace Corps rehired a volunteer who had been previously accused of sexual assault, Kerner wrote.

“This case is but one example that refutes the report’s determination that the Peace Corps does not need to update its applicant screening policies,” Kerner wrote.  “While the Peace Corps cannot prevent volunteers from ending their service while under investigation, the Peace Corps should note in the volunteer records that an individual resigned while under investigation for sexual misconduct.”

Two, the report stated that it has not identified a need for additional training for host families and co‐workers, nor is the additional training required by current law.  However, the report reflects that out of the 781 reports of volunteer sexual assault between 2011 and 2014, 16 percent of the assaults were allegedly committed by a host family member or co‐worker, Kerner wrote.   Greene, as head of OVA, identified the need for additional training and made that allegation to OSC.

“Given these facts, OSC finds it unreasonable to conclude that training would provide no additional value in the prevention of sexual assault, even if it is not required by law,” Kerner wrote.

In addition to submitting the report and Greene’s comments to the President, OSC submitted the materials to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.  The documents also are publicly available here at www.osc.gov.

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The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is an independent federal investigative and prosecutorial agency. Our basic authorities come from four federal statutes: the Civil Service Reform Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Hatch Act, and the Uniformed Services Employment & Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). OSC’s primary mission is to safeguard the merit system by protecting federal employees and applicants from prohibited personnel practices, especially reprisal for whistleblowing, and to serve as a safe channel for allegations of wrongdoing. For more information, visit website at www.osc.gov.    

 

 

 

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  • I think that there is a limit to what the PC Agency can actually DO, to regulate the behavior of host country nationals, in their own cultural context, and their own system of laws, short of simply not operating in many countries today. There is an inherent problem, exacerbated by American feminist thinking, about unattached young women with an American sense of reality, befriending males of a different culture, and the potential misunderstandings that can result. Never mind criminality against someone of a different culture, without things like the protection of families. The term “training” is constantly being tossed around, but the problems are far more than simply telling volunteers what to watch out for, or for counselling after something bad has happened. And how does one train a host family to prevent conduct by others they don’t even know ? I suspect, too, that decisions by the PC Agency to simply not send young, unattached female volunteers to some countries, will engender a feminist uproar.

    Clearly, compared to 50+ years ago, when I was a volunteer, the world in general is a much more dangerous place. Things I did comfortably, like travelling alone around the Middle East, I could never do today. And even peaceable host countries like Ghana, today have levels of violence we volunteers never imagined decades ago. How a 21st Century PC should be structured, and operate, I’m honestly not sure. John Turnbull Ghana-2 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi -2 Geology Assignment, 1963, -64, -65.

  • John, You would do well to acquaint yourself with the contemporary history of Peace Corps in regard to these issues.
    Your statement: ” How a 21st Century PC should be structured, and operate, I’m honestly not sure.” An interesting and honest statement,but it is no longer relevant. The United States Congress answered that question in 2011 when President Obama’ signed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Act of 2011. The Act mandated that Peace Corps adopt policies to help prevent assault against Volunteers, including specific training of host country administrative staff as well as policies to ensure that victims of such assaults would receive prompt and appropriate care.

  • Thanks for your optimism, Joanne. All any of us know is what the PC, via Office of Third Goal chooses to tell us about policy, and since the Kate Puzey Act, I haven’t seen a thing describing significant steps being taken on this subject, that in most cases were already being taken by Host Country Staffers, many of whom were themselves volunteers. Well-intentioned platitudes, in response to well-intentioned advisories and requests by the Congress, mean, by themselves, nothing. The question is WHAT concrete steps are being taken, that haven’t been before, to address this inherent problem. Inherent structural problem in assigning unattached, young women essentially independently, with no way of timely intervention or rescue by host country staff when these invariably sexually-related assaults happen, and happen quickly.

    I spent half my career implementing well-intentioned legislation (like the Kate Puzey Act), and am keenly aware that the affected agency will always respond with SOMETHING, be it something demonstrably effective, or simply a platitudinous smoke screen, to lend the appearance of compliance. Not that the agency doesn’t want to comply. As often as not, they haven’t any idea, OR in some cases there is no effective solution — short of a wholesale rethinking of the program. As for solutions, it was Abraham Lincoln who posed the issue: Q How many legs does a horse have, if you call the tail a leg ? Ans. FOUR, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.

    I, for one, would love to see exactly WHAT policies are being adopted, and how they’re expected to make a difference. Not counselling after the fact, but how to prevent or deal with the bad stuff in the first place.

    Interestingly, the very FIRST conversation I had with female PC trainees, was in late 1962. The issue is as old as the PC itself. John Turnbull

  • John,

    The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 created an independent Sexual Assault Advisory Council which each year beginning in 2012 reviewed the implementation of the Act and reported both to Peace Corps and to Congress.
    Here is a link to 2016 Report: https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.peacecorps.gov/documents/open-government/SAAC_Annual_Report_2016.pdf

    In addition, the Office of the Inspector General has been very involved in monitoring Peace Corps implementation of provisions of the Act; Here is their latest report: https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.peacecorps.gov/documents/inspector-general/Final_Evaluation_Report_on_the_Peace_Corps_Sexual_Assault_Risk_Reduction_and_Response_Program.pdf

    Given your background, I would appreciate your assessment after you have read these reports.

  • Hi Again, Joanne, Per your suggestion, I examined the referenced 2016 Report of the Sexual Assault Advsory Council, done after four years of head-scratching, and found it to be the most exhausting exercise in academic naivete and bureaucratic fluff, belaboring the obvious, and missing key factors, that I have ever read. All kinds of stuff about the agency’s record-keeping.

    And when I finally came to concrete proposals for things to happen in the field, with real host country families and volunteers, it sounded like a skit from a West African travelling show. Can you imagine “training” host families to go out and lecture their neighbors about tolerating and being nice to LGBT volunteers, when the understood punishment for such conduct is death ? If I were doing a skit for a travelling show, with stuff like this I could bring down the house !

    And, harking back to naivite, of course other volunteers should help out a volunteer in ANY kind of difficulty. This is nothing new. Volunteers always have done that. And, with regard to the agency, at least host country staff, needing to be more attentive to a volunteer’s report, and needs, my impression is that they always have done that.

    Nowhere in any of this, after four years of thinking, did the Advisory Council even acknowledge the radical differences from one culture to another. Is the solution in, say, West Africa, which has a rather liberal, laisse faire attitde concerning relations of the genders, anywhere near the restrictions of, say, a Muslim society, where the same conduct is punishable by stoning to death ? The best recommendation of all was: How do you solve the problem ?” Ans: come up with a plan ! ! !”

    I’m afraid, Joanne, that this Advisory Council, if it is doing anything, it’s zeroing in on misconduct within the Agency, and bureaucratic procedure, and largely educating itself. I’ll have to see what the Inspector General has to offer. John Turnbull

  • Thank you. If you look at the members of the Council, you would see that there are one or two RPCVs, but also well credentialed professionals. I think your focus on the cultural differences is very accurate.

  • Well, I suffered through a numbing 110 pages by the Inspector General, and find it’s far more on target, and far more based on actual volunteers’ comments. However, again, virtually all the comments have to do not with coping with service-time risks, but wth how to cope with the PC Agency. What I gleaned from the 110 pages is simply asking the Agency to do what any school principal and school nurse would automatically do, without an elaborate bureaucratic set of rules. Rules taking precedence over intelligent, sympathetic, common-sense judgement, is almost a definition of a bureaucracy.

    Being a founding volunteer from the earliest days, I had the opportunity to work under one of the very best country directors, with whom I know all of these complaints never would have happened. For instance, when to simply transfer a volunteer, to a different site, OR a different country, OR send them home, isn’t that difficult to decide. Try just asking the volunteer ! ! !

    The OIG relates one thing very cogent: Why have volunteers victimized by sexual or other assault choose not to report it. Common response was no confidence the PC officials could be counted on (intelligence, sympathy, local understanding ?) to do the right thing. Later, I would see some dismal examples to justify such skepticism. And after all, the volunteers were selected based on willingness to do the job, and stick it out. Not complain about things. So how to “train” new volunteers about this ? Why not simply send a half dozen recently-returned volunteers from the same country and culture, to field questions and advise the new volunteers ? Pretty simple, compared to what’s being exhaustively suggested.

    The sheer volume on this subject sounds almost like the adoption of a FOURTH Goal for the Peace Corps, all but dwarfing the original three goals. Or even negating them. How does a volunteer embrace the Second and Third Goals, when they’re paranoid about even minor sexual “assault” happening. Things so newsworthy around the USA today, like patting somebody on the knee, or stealing a hug.

    Whilst we volunteers from the earliest days (the PC Stone Age ?) may be more adaptable, or tougher, all of this is going to come back to earth when sexual assault, for PC purposes, is redefined as truly harmful stuff, and not merely embarrassment. Reading the report of the Advisory Council, I was left with the impression that they didn’t see any difference. John Turnbull

  • John,

    Thank you. I am familiar with the reports and supported the women of First Response Action, who were RPCVs, victims of sexual assault, and who worked to bring about the bipartisan Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011.
    However, I can not speak to actual current circumstances. other than I have friends who are recently returned RPCVs as well as RPCVs who have intererviewed for the JFK Oral History Project. They are brave, flexible, etc. I also am assuming you know all about Kate Puzey and why the Act was named for her. Right?

    First of all, allow me to rage and rant briefly about “founding volunteer” of the early days and this statement: “Whilst we volunteers from the earliest days (the PC Stone Age ?) may be more adaptable, or tougher, all of this is going to come back to earth when sexual assault, for PC purposes, is redefined as truly harmful stuff, and not merely embarrassment.” I served exactly at the same time you did – 63-65. Give me a break. The protection provided by this Act is absolutely necessary. To assert that somehow volunteers were “tougher” then is crazy. I know. I survived ‘drownproofing” and repeling off the stadium wall at UNM and fought off an intruder much later when I lived in Albuquerque. Based on my experiences as a Volunteer, however, this law is absolutely necessary and improvement must be made. Enough of the rant.

    From the beginning, Peace Corps policy was to treat men and women equally. I really appreciated that. But, the culture of the “stone age 60s” did reverberate. When we arrived in Bogota, my all female group was greeted by the Ambassador who said that he saw pictures of Colombian Beauty Queens in the paper everyday and expected us to match that appearance (!) Yet, our PC Country Director appointed a woman as the first Volunteer Leader in the northern part of rural Colombia and she was fantastic.

    You are right to say that it all depends on the Country Director. The training and skill of Country Directors varies tremendlusly. That is precisely why we needed this law and need the further protection of the pending legislation in Congress. That law mandates that if a Volunteer, for what ever reason, feels unsafe in the site, she or he may request a transfer and that request must be honored by the Country Director, immediately.

    There are many things to consider and not necessarily in order of importance.

    Right now in our culture, there is a sea change and women are saying “no” and “no more” and changing the mores for what is acceptable behavior in a work enviornment. Peace Corps is part of that.

    You are right to talk about cultural differences. and even in the reporting methodology. The OIG is knowlegeable about bureacracy and the law. That is their job. The Sexual Assault Advisory Council has well qualified professionals on it, and some RPCVs. But, neither the OIG and the Council really addressed the problem of working cross culturally. This is really important because the permanent, non five year tenured limited, Peace Corps administrative staff is composed of host country nationals. They provide continuity. Peace Corps has major problems with staff turnover, political appointments, and difficulty in managing the staff in 65 countries. I presume you know that all training is now done overseas.

    Finally, Peace Corps is in perpetual recruiting mode. They are struggling, in my opinion, to find the proper balance between being honest about risks and at the same time encourage people, particularly women, to volunteer. They do make difficult, in my opinion. to find any information. about risk in specific countries or even the reports I linked here.

    I would hope that you would reconsider the tendency to “dismiss” this problem. It is real. It calls for all the experience that resides within the RPCV community to resolve.

  • Joanne, I think you’ve missed half of what I’ve said, and that includes NOT dismissing the seriousness of serious or harmful sexual or other assault. Comparing cross-cultural work to that within a specific system of laws as in the USA, serves only to miss the major point. And most certainly nothing is going to discredit serious concern more than to include (as is rampant in THIS country right now) matters of simple embrarassment with genuinely harmful incidents. I sensed the Advisory Council saw NO distinction at all. In this country, the discussion of what constitutes sexual assault ranges from serious, criminal things like violent rape to include on the other extreme, unwelcome attention, and some man merely complimenting a woman on her dress. How can anything ever be accomplished with a spread like that ? Start prosecuting males for simply saying “Good morning, Nice dress you have.” Or, in some reported domestic instances, the male assailant said nothing, and simply gawked for a moment. I haven’t anything more to say on this subject, escept that I can guarantee one thing, and that is, domestically, when the rules finally come down, women really are not going to like them. Rigid dress codes, gender-segregated lunchrooms, dismissal for going on a date with a fellow employee. Rigid rules on who is allowed to supervise who. And ultimately a major criteria in hiring. I think it’s coming. John Turnbull

  • Noxious acts-that-are actions; gestures acting in the common manner of offender interfaces; those memes, looks, signals
    — this really need-not-be difficult to be comprehending in the crosswalk of cross talk. Truths — don’t kick them around acting the bully that I hope maybe what you write may wrongly suggest are your intentions, John T., so try dialing it back.

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