Critics blame State Department for turning a blind eye on sex abuse
Wed Mar 14, 2012 1:56 PM EDT

By Anna Schecter
Rock Center

The State Department is “in denial” about how many high school foreign exchange students are sexually abused by their American host parents, according to critics interviewed as part of an NBC News probe.

“So many kids, more than you would think have really suffered horrible trauma, they’ve suffered abuse, they’ve been mistreated,” said Jessica Vaughan, Director of Policy at the Washington-based research organization, Center for Immigration Studies.

Every year more than 25,000 high school students are granted visas to spend an academic school year in America. Their parents can pay more than $10,000 to organizations approved by the State Department to place their children with host families.

Vaughan, who has examined exchange programs for years, says the lack of oversight and resources at the Department makes it possible for sexual predators to take advantage of the system and become host parents to foreign exchange students.

“Through their mismanagement of the program, they essentially are looking the other way. They’re in denial about how much of it actually goes on,” Vaughan said. “I’m ashamed as an American that the government agency that’s responsible for bringing them over under the auspices of [being] about cross-cultural understanding is exercising only token oversight to protect these kids.”

NBC News spent six months investigating cases of sexual abuse or harassment of high school foreign exchange students, including a 2005 case in which a student went to live with a sexual predator after another student had sounded warnings the year before.

Attorney Irwin Zalkin represented four victims in that case.

“You have thousands and thousands of kids from around the world that want to come to the United States. I mean, who doesn't want come here and have a chance to experience this country? The problem is we don't have enough homes and families to place these kids with or the ability to vet these homes and vet those host families,” he said.

The State Department defends the high school exchange program, and maintains that the vast majority of the 200,000 students who have come to America over the past decade have had an overwhelmingly positive experience.

"These kids have an enormously gratifying, rich, fantastic American experience that lasts with them for a lifetime,” said State Department Spokesperson Toria Nuland.

State Department staffers told NBC News that a fraction of one percent of high school foreign exchange students reported sexual harassment or abuse by a host parent for the 2010-2011 academic school year. The Department said it did not have such data in a central log of complaints until the fall of 2009.

Indeed, cases of sexual abuse are rare, but they happen.

Rock Center found more than 60 cases of alleged sexual abuse or harassment by a host parent have been reported in local news reports around the country in the last decade, a third of them resulting in convictions.

"Those are just the cases that have been reported, the rest just go home," said Vaughan, who said she believes sex abuse of exchange students is grossly underreported because the students are especially vulnerable.

“They don’t speak the language or know the culture or know their rights,” she said.

Over the course of the investigation, Rock Center learned of other cases of neglect and abuse that were not sexual in nature.

Arkansas State Senator Sue Madison (D-7th District) said she learned of multiple instances of poor treatment or abuse of students. Among them, a case of evangelical Christian host parents who verbally harassed a student, forced her to attend church services and told her she would go to hell because she wasn’t saved. In another case, a couple hosted a student to use the student as free childcare, and in another, a student was forced to work long hours on a chicken farm.

"I think the State Department is not doing nearly enough to oversee these programs," said Madison, who pushed a bill through the state legislature to give the state the power to oversee exchange organizations that place the students with host families.

Minnesota also passed a bill to take on oversight of the high school foreign exchange program after state government officials said they could not get through to the State Department to address problems with host families.

Nuland said that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took office in 2009, she had heard there were problems in the exchange program.

Then in the summer of 2009, a story hit the press about a program in Scranton, Pennsylvania where high school exchange students were subjected to malnutrition and unsanitary living conditions.

Clinton ordered a review of all youth exchange programs by the State Department’s Inspector General.

His resulting report gave a scathing review, citing “insufficient oversight of the youth exchange programs at all levels.”

It found that communication among some staff “borders of unprofessional,” there was a “lack of human and financial resources,” and an “erroneous assumption” that the exchange organizations monitored themselves.

Nuland said that in response, Clinton said, “I want this fixed.”

The Department dropped a number of organizations that previously were approved to place students with families and implemented new regulations meant to more thoroughly check out host families.

"We do training for the staff, we work with them on implementing the regulations. We insist that they document now these home visits, these background checks…there is a 24/7 hotline the students can call if they encounter a problem with the host family,” Nuland said.

Background checks on host families have been required by U.S law since 2005.

Nuland said the State Department also increased the number of staff responsible for oversight of the organizations that place the 25,000 students who come to the U.S. every year. There are currently about sixty people in the office responsible for managing the program. Nuland said Clinton “increased that staff by about 25% in the last two years.”

A portion of those sixty people are in charge of compliance—making sure host families are visited and background checks are done.

Despite reforms, just this past Christmas a 16-year-old boy from Germany says he did not know what to do after he was allegedly sexually abused by his host father and did not know what to do. In an interview to be broadcast tonight on Rock Center, he said he did not know about the State Department’s 24/7 hotline.

His mother said when she spoke to the local coordinator by phone and asked her what she should do, the coordinator told her, “It’s up to you.” She quickly flew to the U.S. on her own dime to retrieve her son at her own expense. Three months later she and her son flew back to the U.S., again at their own expense, to file a police report.

Nuland said the State Department will look into the case. She said the Department and Clinton are committed to making the experience of studying abroad a safe and happy one for any foreign student.

“We have to have zero tolerance for any of these cases, even one child abused is one too many. And it is our job to fix this and we will,” she said.

“To the degree that which we still have cases reported we are not there yet. Are the reforms that we've put in place sufficient? I think we need to watch that over the next couple of months and see where it goes. But we are absolutely committed to continuing to tighten these regulations and improve this program until we get to zero,” Nuland said.