After an ABC News report about the murder of a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, Congress has passed a bill designed to protect whistleblowers and improve the treatment of victims of violence and sexual assault.
"We're so gratified, and actually amazed, that it's come to fruition, and that other volunteers will be able to hopefully serve safely," said Lois Puzey, mother of Peace Corps volunteer Kate Puzey, who was killed in 2009. "And if God forbid something happens, that they will have the support they need, which is what our family ... did not get."
The House passed the Kate Puzey Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 by unanimous consent Tuesday evening, following unanimous passage by the Senate on Sept. 26. The bill now goes to President Obama to be signed into law.
The bill is named for 24-year-old Kate Puzey of Georgia, who was murdered in Benin in 2009 after telling superiors she believed a fellow Peace Corps employee was molesting female students. In an investigation that aired on "20/20," ABC News told the story of Kate's murder and examined what critics say has been a "blame-the-victim" culture within the Peace Corps when volunteers are assaulted or attempt to report problems.
Lois Puzey thanked ABC News "20/20" for bringing attention to the case, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R.-Georgia, for shepherding the bill through to passage. "Just having this bill passed, this law, is going to give us a lot of healing."
Sen. Isakson and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, introduced the bill with a Capitol Hill press conference this summer. "The time has come to stand up and protect America's angels abroad", said Poe at the press conference. On the House floor Tuesday night, Rep. Poe said he hoped the bill would make volunteers feel safe "so that more and more go join the Peace Corps," and also credited ABC News with highlighting the issue of crime against Peace Corps volunteers.
"One reason it came to light was because of an ABC '20/20' special that was on January the 14th outlining the plight of individual Peace Corps volunteers and how they were treated," said Rep. Poe. "In some cases our volunteers were treated like the criminals and they weren't treated like victims. ... And those days need to end." Sen. Isakson told ABC News Tuesday that he was "overjoyed" at the bill's passage, and grateful to all who worked on the legislation.
"Kate was a remarkable young woman who unselfishly went to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and was tragically murdered while helping others," said Sen. Isakson. "Kate's life will be memorialized by this new law to provide added protections, victims' rights and whistleblower status for Peace Corps volunteers. It is my sincere hope that this day might bring a small bit of comfort to the Puzey family."
The bill requires the Peace Corps to improve the training of volunteers to reduce sexual assault risk, would protect whistleblowers, and would require the Peace Corps to hire victims' advocates for each region the agency serves.
Puzey Family Believes Peace Corps Failed to Protect Kate
Kate Puzey was serving in a village in the West African nation of Benin in March 2009 when she began to suspect that a Peace Corps employee named Constant Bio, a citizen of Benin, was sexually harassing and sleeping with female students at the school where she taught. She sent an email to country headquarters reporting her suspicions and recommending he be fired.
"Please believe me, I'm not someone who likes to create problems, but this has been weighing heavily on me," reads the e-mail she sent, obtained by ABC News.
Bio's brother worked as a manager in the Peace Corps office and Puzey asked her role be kept secret. She was found with her throat slit shortly after Bio received word from Peace Corps officials that he would be dismissed from his contractor position.
The suspect has been in custody since the murder while authorities in Benin investigate. Bio asserted his innocence in a letter to a newspaper in Benin, claiming he was being framed by America. Benin authorities have said they do not yet have enough evidence to try Bio.
The Puzey family believes that the Peace Corps failed to protect Kate, and then kept them in the dark about what had happened.
"It hurts us very deeply," said Kate's father, Harry Puzey, in an interview for "20/20."
"We wouldn't be sitting here, I think, if they had been more transparent with us, more honest with us," added Lois Puzey.
Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the Peace Corps deputy director, refused to say whether the agency bore any responsibility for Kate Puzey's death, citing the ongoing criminal investigation in Benin. "I cannot say because the investigation is not complete," she told ABC News.
Critics of the Peace Corps say the agency has a culture that tries to downplay violent incidents overseas and make victims feel responsible for their own misfortunes. Women who were sexually assaulted while serving as Peace Corps volunteers told ABC News that the treatment they received after they were attacked was sometimes worse than the assaults themselves, and that the agency seemed ill-equipped to deal with victims.
Casey Frazee, who was assaulted while serving in South Africa, formed a group called First Response Action to pressure the Peace Corps into reforming its treatment of victims and updating its sexual assault prevention program.
Frazee hailed the Kate Puzey bill as a breakthrough, and noted that the Peace Corps had worked with First Response Action and members of Congress on reform. "First Response Action is thrilled to see legislation come to fruition that supports Peace Corps Volunteers who report or experience a crime, whether as a victim or a whistleblower," said Frazee. "We are thankful to Congressman Poe and Senator Isakson for working closely with us and Peace Corps to generate this legislation." Cosponsors of the bill include Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.), and Reps. Howard Berman and Sam Farr, both California Democrats.
In a statement, Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams said the "safety and security of our volunteers is Peace Corps' top priority."
"The Peace Corps welcomes the work of Congress on this important issue," said Williams, "and looks forward to continuing our joint efforts to improve our response to sexual assault and other crimes."