Kate’s Voice began as a mission by Kate’s family to protect other Peace Corps Volunteers and their families from the unnecessary devastation that they experienced.

When Kate decided to report misconduct and sexual allegations against a coworker who also was a contract Peace Corps employee, she contacted the top officials at the Benin Peace Corps Headquarters. It is believed that the mishandling of this confidential information contributed to Kate’s murder.

Following her death, Peace Corps staff expressed sincere sympathy and took many steps to honor her. However, Kate’s family also expected that Peace Corps would be forthright with them, acknowledge its mistakes, and be there as they tried to work with the Benin justice system to see that the accused—including two Peace Corps employees—were brought to justice. This did not happen. Instead Peace Corps officials offered hardly any support or information about what happened to Kate, stating that they did not have a role in the investigation. After four months, the Peace Corps requested that the family direct any further inquiries to the Justice Department and stopped all communication. Kate’s family found themselves on their own trying to piece together what happened to their beloved daughter and felt abandoned by the Peace Corps.

During this period the family also learned that some of the policy failures that contributed to Kate’s death were not isolated, but heard reports of similar problems in various places throughout the world. While strongly supporting the Peace Corps and the many great things it achieves, it became clear that some specific policy improvements needed to be made to help avoid future tragedies for other volunteers and their families. Therefore Kate’s family decided to channel its grief into positive action aimed at achieving the needed reforms.

Kate’s Voice Begins

Near the first anniversary of Kate’s death in 2010, some of Kate’s family and friends formed a “Kate’s Voice Advocacy Group” and developed an Action Plan – seeking to act as Kate’s voice since she could no longer speak for herself. Members traveled to Washington DC to meet with members of Congress and Peace Corps officials, including the newly appointed Director, Aaron Williams. The group not only requested greater transparency from the Peace Corps, but also submitted specific policy reform suggestions for whistle blower protections and better support for grieving families. These were discussed formally in a letter exchange over the next few months. In the summer of 2010, eighteen months after Kate’s death, the family was finally able to meet directly with the Peace Corps Inspector General to seek some answers; unfortunately this meeting yielded only a very limited amount of new information.

Thereafter “Kate’s Voice” continued to advocate for policy changes that will help protect and support Peace Corps Volunteers. This included outreach to many allies and decision makers, responding to various media outlets, and many hours researching what specific policy changes would best serve to achieve their goals. It also broadened its scope to include seeking reforms of the support offered to Peace Corps Volunteers who are sexually or otherwise assaulted, based upon information it learned in pursuit of its objectives. Most recently, “Kate’s Voice” has begun collaborative efforts with First Response Action, a group dedicated to helping Peace Corps survivors of physical and sexual violence.

In October an investigative team from ABC’s 20/20 began researching Kate’s death for a program that aired in January 2011. During this same period the new Peace Corps Deputy Director of Operations, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, contacted Kate’s family and has become a compassionate advocate on their behalf. The Peace Corps is currently acting as a liaison for the family concerning the trial, even though the State Department actually handles the negotiations with the Benin justice system. This is a final and important issue that Kate’s Voice hopes to see resolved: a trial has yet to be scheduled for the three suspects in custody, although it has been two years since Kate’s death. That said, the Beninise justice system typically proceeds at a slower pace than the United States, and neither the Peace Corps nor State Department have any authority in the matter.

Lastly, we want to make special note that, from the very beginning, Kate’s family has been strongly supported by Senator Johnny Isakson from Georgia. He attended Kate’s memorial service, has honored her in speeches on the Senate floor, and has been a valuable emissary with the State Department and Benin Justice system. Senator Isakson also has met with the Peace Corps on behalf of Kate and the family. Perhaps most notably, he has proposed and continues to pursue legislation consistent with the goals of ‘Kate’s Voice’ to ensure that Peace Corps Volunteers receive whistleblower protection. Unfortunately, this bill was not passed in the last congressional session.

Where We Stand Now

Kate’s Voice is advocating for the enactment of legislation which achieves our objectives to protect and support Peace Corps Volunteers. We also hope to see the trial of those involved in Kate’s death finally scheduled and resolved. If these aims are achieved, we hope that Kate’s family and friends can finally have a chance to seek whatever closure is possible after the devastation of losing her beloved spirit.

In response to Kate’s murder and our concerns, we want to acknowledge that the Peace Corps has implemented some recent policies and training procedures:

  • A new Office of Volunteer and Family Support Services is being created. ( by expanding the scope of work of the previous Office of Special Services)
  • Procedures have been formalized for notifying families of the death of a volunteer and returning of personal possessions. This includes a phone call from the Director of the Agency, an offer of an immediate visit by a grief counselor, the return of personal possessions by a Peace Corps employee, and on-going support by our team of clinical psychologists.
  • An audit was conducted by the Office of the Inspector General on Peace Corps’ Safety and Security procedures.
  • The training in Safety and Security was strengthened for both staff and Volunteers. The first ever global training for Safety and Security Coordinators and Safety and Security Officers was held in Washington DC last summer.
  • The policy requiring background checks for all Peace Corps staff and contract workers is being strictly enforced.
  • There are improved lines of communication and technical support to Posts from the Office of Safety and Security.
  • A newly created Peace Corps Working Group headed by a full-time trained psychologist is addressing issues related to sexual assault, handling difficult cultural issues and better support of Volunteers in the field.
  • New policies were developed for handling confidential information and Volunteer allegations, with ongoing training and reinforcement of these policies for both staff and Volunteers. There are now very strict guidelines for handling confidential information. These written guidelines for both Volunteers and Staff are included in their handbooks to make the process clear, and these guidelines are reinforced with every training

Kate’s family and our advocacy group are pleased to see that these changes are being made; we want to again note that we strongly believe in the mission of the Peace Corps and are in no way seeking to cause it harm. To the contrary, we want to see the Peace Corps be as successful as possible and address issues that can undermine its potential.

Jessica Smochek (left) – Survivor Resources Coordinator for First Response Action and former Peace Corps Volunteer – shortly after her arrival in Bangladesh.

 

However, after two years of unexpectedly negative experiences, many hours of research, and hearing the stories of a large number of current and former Peace Corps Volunteers, we strongly believe that legislation is necessary in order to ensure that our aims of protecting Volunteers and supporting victims are fulfilled. Here are a few reasons why Kate’s Voice has reached that conclusion:

  1. The current Peace Corps senior staff has worked diligently within this past year to initiate necessary reforms. However, we want to make sure these remain consistent over time and that policies are strictly followed, as this has been a notable problem on various issues for the Peace Corps in the past. Legislation guarantees this consistency. This is particularly important given the Peace Corps distinct “five year” hiring policy – which has benefits, but also establishes a high turnover in staff that disrupts the consistency of policy administration.
  2. Mandating additional reporting requirements to Congress by the Peace Corps will help guarantee better transparency and that critical problems are more promptly addressed, which ultimately will be beneficial to all stakeholders. For example, new policies to protect whistleblowers in the Peace Corps were drafted shortly after Kate’s death, but were not actually made official until January 14th, 2011– the same day the 20/20 report aired, 22 months later. We believe such reforms would be more promptly implemented with greater oversight.
  3. We believe that Peace Corps Volunteers who are victimized while serving their country should be supported, much as victims who serve in the armed forces are provided with support. We believe this is much more likely to happen if Peace Corps victims’ rights are legislated.

Therefore, as part of our ongoing effort, this Kate’s Voice website was created in March 2011 as a vehicle to help finally achieve the objectives originally set forth by the Kate’s Voice Advocacy Group as we aim to see legislation finally enacted this year.