Exchange Student Neglect Leads to Calls for Reform
Villarreal, a Colombian, had signed up for a pricey study-abroad program that promised an "unforgettable year" in America. What he and many other exchange students in northeastern Pennsylvania got instead was a year filled with shabby treatment bordering on abuse. "I just wanted it to end," he says.
The situation in the Scranton region has rocked the U.S. foreign exchange establishment, raising questions about checks and balances that are supposed to keep students safe and their stays positive.
While the U.S. government says most of the students go home happy, critics say weak regulatory oversight, combined with shoddy industry practices and a shortage of qualified host families, have led to neglect and mental, physical and sexual abuse.
The problems have been documented around the country:
- A woman in Anderson, Ind., pleaded guilty to having sex with her 17-year-old exchange student. Police said she threatened to send the teen away if he ended the relationship.
- A Minnesota official investigating the California-based Council for Educational Travel USA told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis he found problems including shoddy living arrangements and a failure to secure host families. The agency defended its practices.
- In Houston, a man who hosted as many as five foreign exchange students was arrested on child-pornography charges after police found hundreds of images. Interpol is tracking down the students.
- In Norfolk, Neb., a host mother pleaded no contest to accusations that she stole more than $10,000 from her two exchange students, one from Norway and the other from China.
In Scranton, students were placed in wretched living conditions by Aspect Foundation, a California nonprofit that brings about 1,000 exchange students to the United States each year. Some students were found to be malnourished, while others lived in filthy, cramped homes, at least one of which was later condemned. Aspect said it deplores what happened in Scranton but that its overall record is good.
"It's both horrific, and also inconsistent with basic foreign policy goals of our government," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who has pressed the State Department recently to improve its oversight.
Miller Crouch, who heads the department's Educational and Cultural Affairs Bureau, said the scandal will likely lead to tightened federal control of the dozens of private exchange groups that sponsor thousands of foreign students each year.
He said State has also taken "a 360-degree look" at its own regulatory operation.
"We're not above reproach here. We should have known this," Crouch said. "This program is really good for the country and it's got to work."
They arrived in Scranton last August from Vietnam, Tanzania, Nigeria, Denmark, Colombia, Norway and France, a dozen fresh-faced teens, joining the annual pilgrimage of 30,000 foreign high school students who come to the U.S. to study, brush up on English and experience American culture.
Villarreal, from the northern Colombian mining town of La Guajira, had hoped to gain maturity and independence before heading off to college. But from the moment his plane touched U.S. soil, he knew something was wrong: Edna Burgette, the veteran Aspect placement counselor responsible for his welfare, had nowhere for him to stay.
As soon as he got to Scranton, Burgette walked him from door to door in the city of 75,000, begging people to take him in and "basically selling me like a piece of meat," he said. When there were no takers, Villarreal went to live in an area of dilapidated homes with Burgette's elderly companion, the one who guarded his food.
With little food in the house, Villarreal, an aspiring graphic artist, dropped 14 pounds.
His parents say Aspect ignored their complaints.
Exchange agencies should secure a host family and a school before a student arrives, but that doesn't always happen. Danielle Grijalva, director of the California-based Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, said as many as a dozen students at a time have been crammed into basements, garages or campers. In some cases, students have gone door to door, trying to secure a place to stay themselves, she said.
The State Department warned in 2006 that exchange programs found it increasingly difficult to find qualified host families, citing the rise in single-parent households and other demographic changes.
Now, amid a severe recession, there may be even fewer volunteers. But critics say placement agencies continue to accept more students than they can handle, leading to unadvised placements like the ones in Scranton.
Federal regulators have limited the growth of the Exchange Visitor Program for the past three years, trying to avert a "train wreck" by preventing demand from outstripping supply, Crouch said.
In northeastern Pennsylvania, the train went off the tracks.
Anne Bardoz was even more desperate than her friend Villarreal.
Burgette placed the 16-year-old student from Tonsberg, Norway, with a family that couldn't afford to support her. A month later, Burgette sent her to a filthy three-room apartment already crowded with three other people. The floors were strewn with animal feces; the dog urinated on her bed and clothes.
The apartment "was pretty much the worst place I have ever been," Bardoz, who wound up staying in her principal's home, wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
After local TV aired a May report on the students' plight, child welfare officials found "malnutrition, dehydration, unsanitary and unsafe home environments," said Theresa Osborne, the Lackwanna County director of human services.
A grand jury has launched a criminal investigation; a prosecutor said last week that the case merits charges. (Burgette, who was paid $400 for each student she placed, did not respond to requests for comment.) The State Department hit Aspect with penalties including a 15 percent reduction in the number of visas it can distribute next school year.
Aspect fired Burgette, saying she had used "appalling judgment," and accepted the resignations of two of her immediate supervisors. It also temporarily stopped accepting new students, sent surveys to students already in the United States and touted an "Exchange Student Bill of Rights."
But Stanley Colvin, the State Department regulator who oversees foreign exchange programs, wrote to Aspect last month that he believes the problems are bigger than Scranton.
"My review of Aspect's records and financial statements leads me to conclude that Aspect is a financially troubled corporation operating with a largely untrained and unsupervised field staff," wrote Colvin, who found Aspect violated a dozen federal regulations.
Aspect archly defended its 25-year track record.
"There may be exchange programs that run amuck of the regulations with an alarming degree of frequency. Aspect Foundation is not one of them," Vivian Fearen, Aspect's executive director, wrote to Colvin late last month.
Throughout the industry, "Scranton" has become shorthand for what not to do.
"It's not business as usual now," said John Hishmeh, executive director of the industry's accrediting body, the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel. He said a task force will examine the Scranton case and apply lessons learned from it.
But Hishmeh also cautioned against drawing conclusions about the entire foreign exchange program or to assume an exchange agency did something wrong whenever a student is victimized. State Department officials also say much the same thing.
Chris Gould, a retired British police investigator and consultant to foreign exchange programs worldwide, said mistreatment of foreign students is significantly underreported.
Students may face linguistic or cultural barriers to reporting problems, or are afraid they will be sent home if they complain. And many agencies require students to first approach their local coordinators with problems, threatening repatriation if they don't comply.
The State Department plans to establish a toll-free number for students to report problems.
Villarreal's family, meanwhile, is trying to get its money back from Aspect. But there are no hard feelings toward the United States.
"I know there are good people and bad people everywhere. I was just unlucky," Villarreal said. "The U.S. is a good place, and I want to come back to Scranton."