San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Crime

Peace Corps volunteers petition to reinstate sexual assault victims' advocate

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two hundred current and returned Peace Corps volunteers around the world have signed a petition to the U.S. Congress to reinstate an outspoken advocate for victims of sexual assault who was pushed out four years after lawmakers demanded that the agency show it was serious about volunteers’ security.

“Survivors and their allies are asking for the immediate reinstatement of Kellie Greene as Director of Office of Victims Advocacy,” says the petition started on Change.org in December.

“Kellie Greene has proven herself to be a fierce advocate for Peace Corps Volunteers who become victims of crimes during their Peace Corps Service,” the petition says. “She holds Peace Corps to a incredibly high but necessary standard. She has ushered in great change within Peace Corps. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are calling for her immediate reinstatement.”

Greene, 50, was a nationally recognized advocate for victims of sexual assault when the Peace Corps hired her in 2011 as its first director of the Office of Victim Advocacy to reach out to and help volunteers who are attacked in the field.

Since November, she has been on a 120-day unpaid suspension, months after the agency notified her that she was being fired, in part for “creating a hostile work environment,” documents show. The Peace Corps also accused her of micromanaging cases and rebuking other staff members.

Greene says she antagonized top Peace Corps officials by pressing them to comply with the letter and spirit of a law U.S. President Barack Obama signed that prompted her hiring. The legislation was named after volunteer Kate Puzey, 24, whose throat was slit in Benin, Africa.

Puzey reported to Peace Corps staff in Benin that a local employee of the agency was raping female students at the school in the village where she taught. She was killed shortly after her disclosure in March 2009. Her killer has not been arrested or charged.

In response, Congress passed the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act, which demanded that the agency take the security of volunteers more seriously. It required the Peace Corps to improve training of volunteers and staff members to reduce the risk of sexual assault and respond better when it occurs, to protect whistleblowers and to start an office that would advocate for victims.

But Greene, who was raped by a stranger who broke into her apartment in Orlando in 1994, said her colleagues have continued a culture of blaming the victim that has been common in the Peace Corps.

She said Peace Corps staff members have limited the number of counseling sessions for sexual assault survivors to a maximum of six before they are told either to get back to their lives abroad or come home, a policy she strongly opposes as minimal support. Overall, the agency resisted her efforts to put the well-being of volunteers first, she said.

“I did far more advocacy for the volunteers within the Peace Corps system than I did in the criminal justice system,” Greene said in an interview in Washington, where she has filed a series of complaints to the Office of Special Counsel alleging that the agency retaliated against her by taking away her cases, excluding her from meetings and planning sessions, and strongly urging her to take a detail at another federal agency.

“The staff continually say that a volunteer ‘cannot keep themselves safe,’ or that they have ‘behavior issues,’ ” Greene said, describing the tendency to blame the victim in assault cases. Many volunteers she worked with were discouraged from reporting their assaults, she said.

She said her position was viewed as a watchdog and therefore was adversarial. “Volunteers were telling me how they were being treated by the staff in their country,” she said. “I was taking the side of the volunteers. There was a lot of hostility toward me, especially in the beginning.”

Greene was given notice that she was being fired in April 2015, then suspended without pay in November; the suspension ends in March. The agency is already advertising for her job, she says.

The Peace Corps said it could not comment on Greene’s case because it is a personnel matter. But spokeswoman Erin Durney said in an email that the agency “has fully implemented the Kate Puzey Act and established significant new policies and practices that reflect our absolute commitment to reducing risks for Volunteers and responding effectively and compassionately when crime occurs.”

“We are proud of our significant efforts to date, which include more than 30 policy changes,” Durney said, “and we continue to assess areas where our response can be made stronger.” She also said the agency “takes allegations of whistleblowing seriously, does not retaliate against whistle-blowers, and encourages those with allegations to come forward.”

Durney said that more victims are comfortable coming forward to report sexual assaults than before, and described a commitment to building “a supportive culture that does not in any way blame victims or retaliates against them for speaking out.”

Greene, while agreeing that volunteers are more willing now to report sexual assaults, called the official response to her case “the same old rhetoric they’ve been saying” for years.

Pointed questions

Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who helped write the Puzey law and has asked pointed questions of Peace Corps officials about whether it is being properly implemented, told the Daily Beast in November that Greene’s firing “looks very sinister … based on what I know. … She … may have asked too many questions.”

According to a memo Greene provided that lays out the agency’s case against her, Greene “created a negative work atmosphere through bullying, harsh communications, isolation of staff, and fear of retaliation [and] micromanaged your subordinate employees … through frequent and demanding communications, including emails in the evening and late night hours.”

She has many supporters in the close-knit community of returned and current volunteers.

The Change.org petition was started by Mary Kate Shannon, a former volunteer and a rape survivor who helped write legislation allowing the Peace Corps to pay for abortions in cases of incest and rape. She wrote on Dec. 10:

I would like to offer my sincere thanks for your support thus far! We have reached the 100 mark within just a few days. One of the reasons I created this is because I am a Peace Corps rape survivor. Navigating all of the systems to recovery can be a challenge.

Kellie was [there] for me from day 1. Letting me know that I was not alone. She restored my faith in Peace Corps, that changes were coming and that my voice would be heard long after my Peace Corps service.

When I first met Kellie, she told me she believed that Peace Corps could lead in how communities all over the world respond to rape and sexual assault. This is why we need her back it her position so that she can continue to help and inspire healing for survivors.

Patricia Smith of State College, Pa., wrote about Greene’s advocacy on behalf of her son:

We know the strength and honoring of truth it requires to advocate for victims of oppression and wrong-doing. Kellie advocated for our son, RPCV 2012, Owen Smith, following an attack during his PC service. Owen and our entire family was blessed by Kellie’s tireless efforts, support and willingness to pursue and engage all avenues of help toward healing restoration. We will always be grateful to Kellie. We will always be grateful for Peace Corps’ hiring of Kellie and of standing behind her and others who worked to move through the circumstances based upon the facts, and based upon a desire to advocate for victims. We believe God made a provision for truth and healing for our son through Kellie’s and Peace Corps’ help at the time. We pray for right to prevail on behalf of Kellie and for all who advocate for victims in this broken world.

© 2016, The Washington Post

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