Lawmakers propose reforms to Peace Corps amid budget uncertainty

By JOSIE JACK

WASHINGTON – For decades, the Peace Corps has been championed as a hallmark of cultural exchange and international service. In recent years, the agency has also faced problems with mental health discrimination, sexual assault, and racial bias.

In an organization committed to peace and global collaboration, one in three Peace Corps volunteers were reportedly sexually assaulted in 2019, according to a USA Today analysis of agency data. Applicants can be turned away due to past mental health care. 

Some critics have called for reforms while also emphasizing the good the Peace Corps continues to provide to people in dozens of nations around the globe.

Some reforms are included in bipartisan legislation passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last summer. The measure, the first reauthorization of the Peace Corps in more than two decades, includes whistleblower protections for volunteers who report abuse, waste, and fraud. The bill also extends the agency’s Sexual Assault Advisory Council until 2028 and requires it to provide annual reports to Congress.

“The Peace Corps Reauthorization Act is an important step in enacting long-overdue reforms that will improve the safety and security of our Peace Corps volunteers,” Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the foreign relations panel, said in a statement.

The legislation has not yet been passed by the full Senate.

A companion bill was introduced in the House by Rep. John Garamendi, D-California, and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia. The co-chairman of the Congressional Peace Corps Caucus, Garamendi said in a statement: “Now more than ever, Congress must support the Peace Corps’ mission and realize President Kennedy’s vision of generations of young Americans ready to serve their nation and make the world a better place.”

“Our reauthorization bill does exactly that, and provides much-needed resources to Peace Corps Volunteers,” Garamendi said.

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden’s proposed fiscal 2024 budget included $495 million for the Peace Corps. The GOP-controlled House has passed an appropriations bill cutting the agency’s budget to a pre-pandemic spending level of $410.5 million. The Democratic majority on the Senate Appropriations Committee in July supported boosting the budget by $18 million, from the current level of $430.5 million to $448 million but the full Senate has not yet taken up its appropriations bill. Lawmakers remain at odds over federal spending levels and have had to pass stopgap appropriations bills to keep government operations running while differences are ironed out.

“I personally love the Peace Corps, and I think it could use a whole makeover in various ways, as many very large bureaucratic agencies could,” Laura DeGrush of Austin, Texas, a former Peace Corps volunteer and former president of the Heart of Texas Peace Corps Association, told Capital News Service. “But it’s that tricky space between knowing that an agency needs more funding and knowing that they really could use some innovation.”

DeGrush served in Paraguay from 2007 to 2009. Ten years after her service ended, she created a petition calling for the removal of “discrimination against mental health therapy.” The petition now has over 1,100 signatures.

DeGrush said she did not personally experience mental health discrimination, but as someone who used to help screen potential Peace Corps volunteers, she experienced frustration in having to turn away volunteers who were fit to serve except for prior therapy or a mental health diagnosis.

However, she said she does believe that if someone was actively a danger to themselves or others, such as if they currently had suicidal thoughts, they would likely not be a good fit for the position.

Kellie Del Signore of Alexandria, VA, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Ethiopia from 2018 to 2020, helped create a beekeeping association in a small town during her service which still exists today.

Del Signore said she experienced catcalling while in larger cities in Ethiopia, although never in the town she was based in, and heard from other volunteers who were sexually assaulted during their service.

She said that during her three months of mandatory training before beginning service, the risk of sexual harassment in country was presented to them through scenarios they acted and talked out.

Del Signore said her cohort of volunteers began as 60 people, and by the end, there were 30; she said most had left due to sexual assault or harassment. After an assault, volunteers often chose not to complete their service or were prevented from doing so by the Peace Corpsaccording to Del Signore.

According to the Peace Corp’s Management Implication Report published in August, 21% of sampled volunteer sites with a history of serious crimes, including rape, did not comply with the required guidance to evaluate crime incidents to assess the safety of sites for volunteers.

“Ethiopian women also endured this,” Del Signore said. “And technically we get to leave, so that’s kind of sad to, like, see our privilege within that.”

Volunteers of color can experience racial biases both during training and in the country.

In February, the Peace Corps published an article by four Black volunteers about their experiences volunteering. One volunteer, Kiana Campbell, said she felt pressure to learn the local language quicker than her white counterparts due to being Black and felt ignored in Ugandan spaces where white volunteers were present due to the international perception of what an American looks like.

“On many occasions, I have been denied the same privileges and leniency that my fellow white Volunteers are afforded from simply being white,” Campbell wrote in the article.

The Peace Corps has said it is aware of these concerns raised by volunteers and has made a variety of statements on the issues.

In a letter to DeGrush in 2019, Karen Becker, then-acting associate director of the Office of Health Service of the Peace Corps, wrote that “applicants must have the ability, with or without medical accommodation, to perform the essential functions of a Volunteer for a full tour of duty without unreasonable disruption due to health problems,” which is why the Peace Corps reviews mental health history.

The Peace Corps also has had a Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program since 2013, which outlines resources and steps to take in the case of a sexual assault.

The agency also includes concepts such as diversity, equity, accessibility, and differences among cultures in its training for volunteers and offers eight employee resource groups, including for female, Black, Hispanic, and Asian volunteers.

Biden earlier this year nominated David E. White, Jr., former national security advisor and special assistant to the president, to be deputy director of the Peace Corps.

On Oct. 19, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked White during his nomination hearing about diversity, sexual assault, mental health, and American values in the Peace Corps.

White said that as an Army veteran, he understood the importance of mental health care. He said he believes that effective volunteers must be culturally competent and that volunteers should be diverse in a variety of aspects, such as race and geographic origin. He added that he wants to prioritize volunteer safety and security, including preventing sexual assault.

“Unfortunately, we know we live in a dangerous world,” White said. “That’s true here at home and it’s true abroad as well. So when the worst does happen, we need to ensure that the response is victim-centered (and) treats victims with dignity and respect.”

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