The Times Tribune | BY SARAH HOFIUS HALL (STAFF WRITER) | Published: July 19, 2009
Nine years ago, Margaret Marshall says Edna Burgette called to ask her to host a foreign exchange student for «a few days.»
Mrs. Marshall had never met Mrs. Burgette, the local coordinator for a student placement agency, who said she heard from someone that Mrs. Marshall had hosted a student before.
After Mrs. Marshall said she was not interested, Mrs. Burgette told her she was desperate, the student’s host family was painting his room, and she would only have to provide a home for «a few days.»
Mrs. Marshall says she reluctantly agreed.
After «a few days» of hosting Hans, a boy from Denmark, Mrs. Burgette was unreachable.
When Mrs. Marshall finally confronted Mrs. Burgette at her workplace several weeks later, she says Mrs. Burgette put Hans in another home – an apartment that reeked of cat urine and had a cat tending to kittens under the couch.
Mrs. Marshall has described this scenario to officials in the Lackawanna County district attorney’s office and the U.S. State Department and wants both agencies to expand their investigations beyond the alleged neglect of up to 12 students Mrs. Burgette placed in homes this school year.
The situation described by Mrs. Marshall adds to evidence that the alleged neglect of foreign exchange students in Scranton has gone on for years before the recent discovery by law enforcement officials and the federal agency entrusted to oversee exchange programs.
Mrs. Marshall also wants to know why student placement agency and Mrs. Burgette’s employer, the Aspect Foundation, never did anything about the problems.
«I feel that Aspect holds more responsibility than even Mrs. Burgette because they were clearly informed of the situation in Scranton but allowed her to continue for another nine years,» Mrs. Marshall wrote in a complaint to the State Department and district attorney.
A home for Hans
One day after Hans moved from Mrs. Marshall’s home into the second-floor apartment with several children and multiple cats, Mrs. Marshall got a call for help.
Hans, who had paid Aspect for a yearlong taste of American life, begged her to take him back.
«The placement was horrendous,» she said. «It was unfit for any human habitation.»
Mrs. Marshall and her husband welcomed Hans back into their home – one Mrs. Burgette, who was responsible for checking in with the students, knew nothing about, Mrs. Marshall said.
«She never did a background check,» Mrs. Marshall added. «She never stepped foot in my home, She didn’t meet my husband, She never knew anything about it.»
Both Mrs. Marshall and Hans’ parents contacted Aspect and provided detailed descriptions of the experience, and Aspect never responded, she said.
Aspect issued a one-sentence statement on Mrs. Marshall’s complaint: «In light of the ongoing investigation, Aspect Foundation is unable to comment on these allegations.»
Numerous attempts to speak with Mrs. Burgette, who was fired after Aspect learned of the allegations, have been unsuccessful. Mrs. Burgette was paid $400 per student she placed and received bonuses like trips and other stipends from the foundation.
A Lackawanna County grand jury has heard testimony from up to 12 students. Some, like Hans, reported arriving in Scranton and not having a host family secured. Students say they were shuffled from home to home, including living in one with a man who had been convicted of drug-related offenses and another home which was later condemned. At least one required medical attention for lack of adequate food and drink. The students paid more than $10,000 to Aspect for the American experience.
The Department of State is penalizing the California-based Aspect Foundation. The department will limit the number of student visas Aspect can receive in 2009-10 by 15 percent, leading to a potential $540,000 loss of revenue.
The U.S. Office of Inspector General has launched an investigation, and the State Department is scrutinizing the «overall conduct» of Aspect through the years, according to a spokeswoman.
The county grand jury is continuing to consider whether criminal charges are warranted, and the investigation has expanded beyond the actions of Mrs. Burgette to the Aspect Foundation.
District Attorney Andy Jarbola said he received the complaint from Mrs. Marshall on Friday, but refused to elaborate on his office’s response.
«We’ll act accordingly,» he said. Prior complaints
Mrs. Marshall has not been alone in reporting prior problems with Aspect.
Ten years ago, Kathie DelGuercio and her husband met foreign exchange students outside 810 Myrtle St. in Scranton. A girl from Germany invited them in and showed Mrs. DelGuercio where she slept – in a 6-foot-by-6-foot room, on a cushion from a lounge chair.
The same residence at 810 Myrtle St. was condemned in May, after a student from Nigeria, who was placed there by Mrs. Burgette, was found living with floors covered in dog feces.
When Mrs. DelGuercio saw the living conditions of the German girl a decade ago, she took her in and reported the problems to Aspect, she said in May after the most recent allegations surfaced. Mrs. DelGuercio said Aspect never responded to her complaints.
Mrs. Marshall wants more former host parents who took students from Mrs. Burgette to come forward.
«It seems to me that Aspect and Mrs. Burgette cared only about collecting significant fees from these students and after the money was in their pockets, their responsibility ended,» Mrs. Marshall said.
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