Translation of: 2011/2012 STS KOKEMUS (CANADA)
The Helsinki District Court sentenced STS Kielimatkat to refund €6.505 (US$7.105) to Finnish Salla Rautiola due to unfair dismissal and numerous other breaches of contract in their exchange student program.
Sallas case has been mentioned and partly presented in MOT documentary, «Vaihto-oppilas heitteillä«, «Exchange student neglect exposed». Let Salla’s exchange experience be a warning about what an exchange student year can be like in reality.
16-year old Salla Rautiola signed a contract in January 2011 with STS Kielimatkat for an exchange student year in the French-speaking part of Canada.
STS promises a carefully screened host-family, school placement and local representative and support persons in the exchange-country. They also promise to take into account the health information given in the application form when choosing the host family. Salla had reported that she is allergic to dogs, cats and pollen.
STS provided the host family information in July 2011, one month before the departure date, but withheld the information they had received the day before from STS CANADA that STS could not fulfill the French-speaking program. Instead, Salla would have to be placed with an English-speaking family.
As a host family, STS had chosen a 62-year old single Jamaican immigrant who for the most part socialized with her own relatives and culture and who spoke only Jamaican creole. The Canadian life-style or traditions were not present in any way in her filthy and moldy house. In the Helsinki District Court, as STS witness, a former male exchange student, who had lived in the same house a couple of years earlier, told the court that the host mother never cleaned. He witnessed that it was his and another exchange student’s responsibility to clean the house. At that time there was still a vacuum cleaner in the house. During Sallas stay there was no vacuum cleaner in a house with wall-to-wall carpet. This witness also told the court how the basement was used as a living room where they watched TV and used the computer. STS Finland country manager, Mira Silvonen, continued insisting that the condition of the home was suitable for an allergic person and gave up to seven different explanations (move, cellar, store etc.) for the pictures Salla had taken of the house. The shocked child protection officials in Finland stated that they would not even temporarily place a minor in conditions like that. Responsible for this host family’s approval as a host family for an allergic minor for ten months was area representative Sandra Hanniman/STS Foundation Canada.
Within two months, Salla started to get allergic reactions from all the dust and mold (picture). She could not go to school, but the host mother did not let the school know about Salla’s absence as required, something STS later blamed Salla for and issued her a warning about. Because of her strong allergic symptoms, Salla asked both the host mother and the area representative, Sandra Hanniman, to take her to see a doctor, but the host mother stated that: «The doctors don’t know anything» and the area representative said: «Let’s see». As parents we had to get the medicine here in Finland and mail them as express to Canada. Instead of helping Salla get to the doctor, STS Canada area director Kim Berry decided to issue a warning to Salla regarding her host mother not informing Salla’s school about her absence. Salla was invited to STS Canada office 14. Nov. 2011. Salla had written a four page complaint about all the problems and failures on STS’ part so far:
- There was no school placement arranged by STS when Salla arrived. Salla was turned away from Gisele la Londe-school, because they had no knowledge of the exchange student. It took almost a week to arrange a school placement.
- The host mother left for five days leaving Salla alone with the allergic symptoms. The host mother did not leave any contact information to Salla and strongly forbad Salla to inform STS about her absence.
- The host mother did not check her mailbox despite Sallas request. Salla had no key to the mail box. The expensive medication we had sent from Finland lay in the mail box nine days before Salla finally got them.
- The host mothers fierce mood swings raised questions. She could be laughing and dancing by herself, but in an instant lose her temper and throw dishes to the floor. Once Salla saw a ziplock-bag on the kitchen table and the host mother told her not to touch it and that it was marijuana. As parents we became worried about that and asked STS to investigate. Despite the pictures taken of the supposed marijuana bag, STS only threatened to issue another warning to Salla for spreading unfounded rumours. The local representative, also the host mothers best friend, stated that she did not believe it was marijuana. That was all STS did. Case closed.
The Canadian area director, Kim Berry, did not even bother to view the complaint Salla had left in the STS office 14. Nov. 2011. Nor did STS Finland manager, Mira Silvonen, reply in any way. Whereas STS Canada country manager, Yannick Becu, sent his greetings to me: Strict demand to not interfere in matters.
Aware of Sallas cat and dog allergy, the area representative Sandra Hanniman tried to temporarily house her in her own home where there were several cats and dogs. Salla started getting an allergic reaction during the first evening and had to organize a place for herself with her friends for almost for a week because STS was not capable of doing so.
After having moved to the second host family, we found out that the host mother was a chain smoker with two dogs. The host mother also told how the area representative had convinced her to take an exchange student just for a while to » try it on». She had agreed to keep the exchange student at most for two months, i.e. to the end of January 2012. At Sandra’s request, this was kept secret from Salla and us.
STS asserts that the host families live up to certain standards, that they are carefully screened and backgrounds checked, homes are inspected and photographed etc. With both of Sallas host families, these promises turned out to be just lies. When showing the pictures taken from Sallas first host family to STS Finland manager Mira Silvonen, she disputed the pictures were not from the host family’s house. STS did not have pictures from the house at all, neither did they show any interest in inspecting the conditions even though STS Canada has an office in Ottawa. When Salla moved in with the second family, STS’ office had no information about the family. We had to ask for address and other information several times. More specific information, for example the age or profession of the host mother, was never given to us.
In the second host family, the host mother’s nephew was a frequent visitor. This army man harassed Salla and without Salla knowing it, loaded porn on her computer. Salla experienced the situation extremely awkward, but was too scared to inform STS about it, because she had already learned that there would not be any kind of support from STS. She also knew that STS could use that porn on her computer as an excuse to dismiss her. A third party got involved and the army man confessed.
DISMISSAL FROM THE EXCHANGE STUDENT PROGRAM:
STS was aware of the latter host family only hosting temporarily to the end of January 2012. Without even trying to find a new host family for the rest of Sallas exchange time, Mira Silvonen deliberately began fabricating grounds for dismissal demanding supplementary reports about Salla’s health. Mira Silvonen did not think that Salla could have been taken to a health inspection in Canada. Instead she invited us as Salla’s parents to STS office in Helsinki to «discuss Salla’s allergies». On Friday 20. jan. at four pm Mira Silvonen, arrogantly announced that she had dismissed Salla from the program and that Salla would leave on Sunday.
As grounds for dismissal, Silvonen submitted breach of contract. According to Silvonen, we had not given essential information about Salla’s health. We should have mentioned that tobacco smoke can cause symptoms to an allergic person. Silvonen as a layman, had also decided that Salla had asthma that we also had not informed STS of. Mira Silvonen later in Court described how she was shocked to hear that a person allergic to pollen could get a reaction from apples during pollen season. It was the same with an allergic person suddenly getting a reaction from combination of for example spices, perfumes etc. All this should have been mentioned in the application form according to Silvonen.
STS advertises, that they comply with the recommendations of the Finnish national board of education regarding international student exchange. According to these recommendations, as well as STS’s own special terms of conditions, the exchange student and her parents should be informed about dismissal as soon as possible. The organization is also responsible for giving appropriate help and support before dismissal. Mira Silvonen acted totally against the agreement. She bought flight tickets one month earlier and kept the dismissal secret from Salla and us until two days before departure. Silvonen says that she takes responsibility for the dismissal. She has never communicated, explained or apologized to Salla. She e-mailed the flight tickets without a comment about her decision. It was left to us parents to inform Salla about this totally unexpected dismissal. In Canada the regional director Kim Berry had told Salla that the reason for her dismissal was «not sufficient interest towards the school» and therefore Salla did not appreciate the opportunity to study abroad. Apparently, Kim Berry was not aware of the fact that Salla was quite successful and was going to be moved to higher class after Christmas.
The last weeks before her dismissal Salla desperately tried to contact STS office and her regional representative even through Facebook to ask if STS had started looking for a new host family. The host mother had told her about not wanting to keep an exchange student for longer than she agreed with STS and that STS had asked her to keep it secret. STS skillfully escaped our contacts both in Canada and Finland.
With some help from her friend’s parents Salla packed her stuff and got to the airport. There was no support or help from STS before the departure. Salla had no chance to say goodbye to her friends and teachers at school. The regional representative Sandra Hanniman stopped by at the airport to make sure she left the country. This is how STS sent a minor alone, in shock, home through Montreal and London, Heathrow to Helsinki. We have often compared that deportation is a more humane procedure than exchange student dismissal by STS.
You cam usually appeal before implementation, but with Mira Silvonen you do not get that chance. Silvonen said that she would discontinue the visa immediately, so our daughter would not have a permit to reside in Canada. She was treated like a criminal.
BRING TO JUSTICE/TAKE TO COURT/SUE
Salla’s father had to fly to London to pick up an inconsolable Salla. Salla does not remember anything about her flight back because of her shock condition. What would she tell her friends was the first thing on her mind back home. She had been put into this humiliating, shameful situation totally without reason and she felt guilt and shame.
Mira Silvonen, who had said to take responsibility, rudely told us to take our case to consumer protection board or court and then refused all phone contact with us. She also refused to give contact information to the people in Canada who were responsible for Sallas case. We were also told not to contact Taru Raitio, who was responsible for students in Canada. We wrote two quite comprehensive complaints. One of them was written by our attorney. STS and Mira Silvonen denied everything. For one year time we tried to negotiate with STS without any luck. Mira Silvonen did not want to negotiate. They did not manage to wear us out. We took STS to court in January 2013.
In MOT document STS director John Cedergårdh admits and regrets that there has been an mistake in Sallas case and that it has not been handled right. Mira Silvonen denied this in the court’s preparatory meeting claiming that YLE had taken Cedergårdh’s statement out of its context. Silvonen claimed that STS had never admitted any wrong-doing. STS also demanded €27.000 (US$29.500) compensation for YLE document’s consequences. Let’s mention that John Cedergårdh left STS two months after the the document became public. He had had a long career with STS.
The main hearing of the case was held in October 2014. STS still denied all the charges. One of Finland’s leading specialists in allergy and asthma diseases, Dr. Lauri Tammilehto witnessed that Salla does not have asthma, but only allergies. Still STS and Mira Silvonen as a layman claimed to the end that we had not told STS about Sallas asthma.
Mira Silvonen had paid Explorius Finland manager, Anu Husu-Peltonen as a witness. Husu-Peltonen witnessed how she would not have accepted Salla to Explorius’ program, because of the health issues. At the same time an Explorius exchange student tells in a forum how she had been placed in a family with many cats even though she had told Explorius about her allergies and asthma!
The Helsinki District Court gave its sentence 12. December 2014, where it was stated that Salla was groundlessly dismissed by STS.
There were some important errors in the Sentence and we left an appeal with the High Court 16. Nov 2015. However, we decided to withdraw it. Going through things that she wanted to forget over and over again was too difficult for Salla. STS paid what it was sentenced to in December 2015.
STS required that all exchange students going to North-America buy an expensive insurance. The price of the insurance today is €895 (US$985) is included with the last payment and is paid to STS Kielimatkat. STS did not deliver any kind of insurance policy, not even when asked to. STS also refused to give contact information to the insurance agency. Many other parents have demanded this information during months without any luck. STS only named numerous amount of other contact persons, insurance agent, service provider, benefit agent etc. None of them were willing to answer questions regarding the insurance. To make it even harder to get in touch with the insurance company, STS sold the insurance in the spring 2014 in the name of Europ assistance Holding-company, a firm that was not operating. Europ Assistance S.A. Irish Branch company’s managing director Mark Butler finally answered my requests and wondered why do I thought that Salla had been insured by them. After checking, 31. July 2014 he reimbursed us €33e (US€800) and regretted not being able to explain why there were no documents or what had happened.
I am extremely proud of our brave daughter, who herself acted as plaintiff in her case and went ahead to get justice against STS Kielimatkat. Salla is currently studying international law and is well.
I myself have taken a look at the exchange student business these years and I must say, had I known half of what I know now I would not have even considered sending my child through any organization. These are teenagers at a very vulnerable stage of development, who are leaving motivated and with big dreams to the unknown. The adults have the responsibility, but these organizations do not know what that means. These organizations do business extremely crafty, ruthless, arbitrary and immoral. I deeply condemn this kind of business where adults use minors to profit.
I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that as many as possible who dream of an exchange student year, would find and study CSFES pages already when planning and not just after problems occur. For the sake of young people I also hope that the parents would study and understand the consequences of accepting the rules of these organizations. Most of these organizations keep the right to dismiss the students without a warning if «the student does not show respect towards the host family, organization or its partners».
If the student has an illness or another health issue, it is worth mentioning that no qualified person goes through them. The forms are made by the managers and only they go through them without any knowledge or education about the health field. This was told by Anu Husu-Peltonen, Explorius manager, when invited as a witness by Mira Silvonen, STS manager. Their general knowledge can be amazingly poor.
Our battle for Salla’s rights against STS took four years. We did get part of our money back, but the traumatic experiences stays in our memory for the rest of our lives. I hope that our case gives other mistreated exchange students and their families courage to fight for justice and a lot to think about to those planning to go for an exchange.
Warmest Thanks to Danielle Grijalva CSFES for your support!
Helsinki, 17th December 2015
Salla’s mother Marjo Rautiola (translated by Päivi)
Transcript: Vaihto-oppilas heitteillä: käsikirjoitus