Edna Mary Burgette was convicted in this matter and had to serve time. She had been responsible for placing exchange students for Aspect Foundation at least 10 years before the authorities got involved. During this time Aspect Foundation had received complaints regarding Ms. Burgette’s placements and her behavior toward the exchange students but to no avail. How many students were affected by Ms. Burgette’s criminal behavior during her time as an International Exchange Coordinator is difficult to know. The only ones with an answer are Ms. Burgette, Aspect Foundation and the students themselves.
WASHINGTON, DC- Following his meeting with Miller Crouch, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs on the situation with mistreated foreign exchange students in Pennsylvania, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) today released the following statement:
“As new details emerge on the intolerable living conditions foreign exchange students were forced to endure in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties, I have concluded that our system failed these young people. In my meeting yesterday with the leading State Department official responsible for the oversight of educational exchange programs, he acknowledged a ‘systemic failure’ on the part of the Aspect Foundation and the need for the Department to establish more safeguards in the process to monitor personnel responsible for the safety and welfare of students.
When a family sends their son or daughter to the United States to experience a glimpse of American culture and values, they should not have to worry that their child will go without food or live in dangerous conditions without any supervision. I look forward to working with the State Department to immediately correct the flaws in the existing process and ensure that future exchange students visiting the United States will only be placed with responsible families that have been fully vetted.”
Last week, Senator Casey sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to investigate the Department of State’s oversight of U.S. youth exchange programs following reports of abuse and mistreatment of the foreign exchange students in Pennsylvania.
Nine foreign exchange students between the ages of 15 and 18 have been placed in the care of Lackawanna County’s Department of Human Services. According to officials, some children were in need of medical attention due to malnutrition and dehydration while others were living in unsanitary conditions and in homes that were recently condemned. Only after their teachers voiced concerns did their neglect come to light. Currently, foreign exchange students are eligible to attend approximately 430 high schools, colleges and universities throughout Pennsylvania.
The organization at the center of neglect allegations concerning foreign exchange students in Scranton is poorly run and violated at least a dozen regulations, the U.S. Department of State has concluded.
In light of the alleged neglect of up to a dozen students placed in the region, the Department of State is penalizing the California-based Aspect Foundation. The department will limit the amount of student visas Aspect can receive in 2009-10 by 15 percent, leading to a potential $540,000 loss of revenue.
The penalties and additional changes in State Department policies will have national implications across the foreign exchange student industry, as more checks are created to ensure student safety.
Meanwhile, a Lackawanna County grand jury is continuing to consider whether criminal charges are warranted, and its investigation has expanded beyond just the actions of Edna Burgette, the local coordinator who placed students in Scranton homes.
Aspect Foundation is also a focus of the grand jury, which started hearing the case in May. The district attorney’s office has been obtaining documents and other records that may lead to charges against the organization, District Attorney Andy Jarbola said.
«That’s the time-consuming process,» Mr. Jarbola said.
Twelve area foreign exchange students, who paid Aspect to place them with area families, have reported arriving in Scranton and not having a host family secured, then living in filthy homes, some of which were later condemned. Students say they were shuffled from home to home, including living in one with a man who had been convicted of drug-related offenses. At least one required medical attention for lack of adequate food and drink.
One student had been so deprived of food he cried when offered pizza by county detectives, Mr. Jarbola said Wednesday.
Along with the criminal probe by the county district attorney’s office, the U.S. Office of Inspector General has launched an investigation.
Depending on the outcome of the case, penalties imposed by the Department of State may become more severe, including Aspect being forbidden from bringing foreign students to the U.S.
Aspect «is a financially troubled corporation operating with a largely untrained and unsupervised field staff,» according to the Department of State. «Underlying this weak organizational structure appears to be a corporate culture that does not grasp the complexity of the current international high school exchange environment.»
In a letter sent to Aspect, the department outlined 12 regulations violated by Aspect, including «failing to ensure that a number of host families were ‘capable of providing a comfortable and nurturing home environment’ » and failing to check references or perform background checks. Aspect also was cited for bringing notoriety and disrepute to the department, as outlined by quotes from The Times-Tribune stories that were included in the letter.
In addition to the 15 percent reduction in visas for the 2009-10 school year – the largest penalty allowed without due process – Aspect has been mandated to implement a corrective action plan, which the Department of State is reviewing. The foundation’s 12-page plan calls for an «Exchange Student Bill of Rights and Responsibilities» and mandatory monthly check-ins with students.
An 800-number hot line also has been established by the department so exchange students may call the department directly to report concerns, rather than go through their local coordinators or agencies.
The Office of Inspector General is conducting an internal inspection of department protocol, and an external management audit that would allow the department greater control has been proposed.
«We need a look at our own internal processes, why we did not have oversight in place that could have caught this,» Miller Crouch, acting assistant secretary of state for the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said Wednesday.
‘Willing to work’
The Aspect Foundation, which has accepted the 15 percent sanction to give the organization «the opportunity to make staffing changes and to ensure our program’s integrity,» is willing to work with the department to correct any problems, Karen Walsh, a spokeswoman for Aspect, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.
Aspect, which company officials say has an «excellent track record» of 25 years, «fully acknowledges that what happened in Scranton was deplorable and in complete violation of our own strict standards and those of the Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program.»
Aspect’s executive director, Vivian Fearen, was unavailable for an interview, Ms. Walsh said.
Numerous attempts to speak with Mrs. Burgette, who was fired after Aspect learned of the allegations, have been unsuccessful. A cell phone number for Mrs. Burgette has been disconnected.
Mr. Jarbola declined to say when the grand jury would conclude its investigation and possibly recommend charges.
Although the students have returned to their home countries, they are willing to come back to testify at a trial or may provide testimony via the Internet or by video, he said.
«Here these students believed they were coming to the greatest country in the world,» Mr. Jarbola added. «For them to be treated that way, it’s certainly criminal.»
Contact the writer: email@example.com Timeline
May: Allegations surface that foreign exchange students were neglected by local host families. County grand jury convenes.
June: U.S. Sen. Bob Casey vows to work with the U.S. Department of State to correct flaws in foreign exchange industry.
Now: Grand jury probe expands to Aspect Foundation; Department of State penalizes Aspect.
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.
When Mussa Hassan, an 18-year-old from Tanzania, told Edna Burgette that he had gone without food for days and had begun seeing blood in his urine, she allegedly told him he would be OK if he just kept drinking water.
When Anna Bardoz, a 17-year-old from Norway, complained to Ms. Burgette about the pet waste covering the floors of a small apartment where she was staying, Ms. Burgette allegedly told her she deserved to be there because of the bad things she had done.
And Carlos Villarreal, an 18-year-old from Colombia, was afraid to complain that he could not wash his clothes for more than two months because he heard what Ms. Burgette had said about other foreign exchange students who complained.
«Edna would say that the students who were complaining were being so ungrateful and ridiculous,» Mr. Villarreal told a county grand jury investigating allegations of neglect of at least 12 foreign exchange students Ms. Burgette placed locally for San Francisco-based Aspect Foundation. Ms. Burgette has been charged by county prosecutors with five counts of endangering the welfare of children.
Although the five students came to Scranton from all over the world, their experiences here had a lot of similarities. All reported having inadequate food and drink, living in filthy conditions and having their complaints ignored by the one person who was supposed to help them.
As a coordinator for Aspect, it was Ms. Burgette’s job to recruit and interview families willing to host a foreign exchange student for half or a whole school year, the grand jury learned. Coordinators are paid $400 to place a student with a family and $20 per month to check in on each student monthly to «make sure everything is going well,» prosecutors said.
If students have complaints, it is the coordinator’s job to resolve them, according to testimony from Aspect Foundation employee Judy Long.
Coordinators are supposed to screen host families before placing students with them. The screening includes a face-to-face interview, criminal background checks for anyone over 18 in the home and verification of at least two personal and one professional reference, Ms. Long told the grand jury.
Prosecutors said Ms. Burgette did not follow procedures in finding host families and did not check in with students as she was supposed to. Four of the five students ended up living with members of Ms. Burgette’s family, and several students told the grand jury that ex-convicts and drug dealers lived in the houses and apartments with them.
Attempts by The Times-Tribune to reach Ms. Burgette over the past few weeks have been unsuccessful. Her attorney, Christopher J. Osborne, declined to comment Wednesday afternoon.
The Times Tribune | By Joe McDonald, (staff writer) | Published: July 24, 2009
A Scranton woman who allegedly placed foreign-exchange students in area homes so deplorable that prosecutors called it a crime was arrested Thursday after turning herself in to authorities.
Edna Mary Burgette, 69, of 810 Myrtle St., was charged with five counts of endangering the welfare of children after she showed up at the Lackawanna County district attorney’s office. Detectives had been searching for her since Wednesday but were unable to find her, District Attorney Andy Jarbola said.
«We knew where she was staying,» Mr. Jarbola said. «She wasn’t on the run.»
Ms. Burgette was released on $25,000 unsecured bail at her arraignment before Magisterial District Judge Sean P. McGraw in Carbondale. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Her arrest does not mean investigators have ended their inquiry into the foreign-exchange student scandal centered in Scranton, Mr. Jarbola said.
«The investigation is continuing,» he said. «It’s continuing before the grand jury.»
The grand jury is scheduled to reconvene next week, he said. Last week, Mr. Jarbola said his office was securing records and other information from Aspect Foundation, the agency by which Ms. Burgette was employed.
The charges against Ms. Burgette revolve around five foreign-exchange students who were placed in area homes between August and May by Ms. Burgette, the former area coordinator for San Francisco-based Aspect Foundation. She was fired after the organization learned of the allegations.
The students told investigators they lived in filthy homes, some of which were later condemned. Several said they were living with ex-convicts and drug dealers. At least one student required medical attention for lack of adequate food and drink. All said Ms. Burgette ignored their complaints, even though she was paid by Aspect to place and check up on the students.
According to court papers, a girl from Norway said she was placed in a home filled with dog feces and cat urine on Dickson Avenue, and a boy from Colombia said he was exposed to similar unsanitary conditions at 935 Madison Ave., where he lived with people who had been released from prison and liked to smoke marijuana.
A student from Nigeria who stayed at Jermyn Apartments and at 935 Madison Ave. also said her living conditions included animal feces and life with ex-convicts, as well as very little food.
Two other students, one from Tanzania who lived at a home on Quincy Avenue, the other from Vietnam who also lived on Quincy Avenue, said they were not given enough food.
(VG Nett) Den norske jenta Anne og andre utvekslingselever i Scranton i Pennsylvania, bodde i utrygge hjem, ble neglisjert og var underernærte.
Utvekslingselevene som dro til Scranton i deltstaten Pennsylvania skulle få oppleve gledene ved den amerikanske kulturen, samt få mulighetene til å studere på high school.
I stedet ble oppholdet et mareritt med forsømmelse, underernæring og manglende oppfølging fra vertsfamiliene, melder CNN. Studentene er nå alle tilbake i sine opprinnelsesland, hvor de forteller venner og bekjente om sine opplevelser.
Den norske jenta Anne, som ikke vil oppgi sitt etternavn, prøvde forgjeves å kontakte amerikanske myndigheter for å fortelle at de levde under kritikkverdige forhold. Hun fikk ingen respons fra myndighetene, og henvendte seg deretter til organisasjonen som var ansvarlig for utvekslingselevene.
Ungdommene skal ha blitt neglisjert av sine vertsfamilier, og skal ha vært underernærte. Underernæringen skal ha ført til at flere studenter skal ha havnet på sykehus.
I tillegg skal den ene studenten ha levd under samme tak som en narkotikadømt kriminell. En annen stundent besvimte under en gymtime på skolen grunnet underernæringen.
Sendte bilder av huset
Anne sendte også bilder av innsiden av huset som hun bodde i. Rektoren på skolen til Anne lot henne bo hos ham for resten av skoleperioden. De andre studentene var ikke like heldige som henne. De bodde nesten i ett helt år i utrygge hjem. Det lokale barnevernet fikk tips om saken en måned før skoleslutt.
Statsadvokat Andrew Jarbola, sier til CNN at han ser meget alvorlig på saken.
Ungdommene fikk ikke ordentlig mat, hygiene og den slags ting. Jeg vet også at en av ungdommene ble plassert i huset til en dømt kriminell. Han har blitt dømt for salg av narkotika og andre narkotikaforbrytelser. Dette er meget alvorlig, sier Jarbola.
Nekter for skyld
Vertsfamiliene benekter at de har gjort noe galt, men beretningene til studentene forteller en litt annen historie.
De fikk ikke mat. En av studentene hadde opplevd at en vertsfamilie hadde teip på maten i kjøleskapet med påskriften – Ikke rør, dette er bare for vertsfamilien. De ble jo neglisjert, sier statsadvokat Jarbola.
Myndighetene krever handling
Amerikanske myndigheter krever nå at det gjøres noe overfor de ansvarlige.
Dette er et utvekslingsprogram som er veldig viktig for oss. Vi snakker om 15-18 år gamle ungdommer som blir introdusert for USA. Vi erkjenner at i dette tilfellet og i andre tilfeller rundt om i landet, har vi feilet i å oppnå våre mål, sier en talsmann for det amerikanske innenriksdepartementet til CNN.
Det er den San Francisco- baserte organisasjonen Aspect som sponset alle de 12 studentene i Scranton. De mottok i 2008 en million dollar i offentlig støtte.
Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston | CNN | 16. juli 2009:
SCRANTON, Pennsylvania (CNN) — They came from around the world hoping to spend a high school year immersed in the culture and joys of America.
Instead, five young foreign exchange students found themselves caught in a nightmare of neglect, malnourishment and abandonment by those supposed to protect them.
Now those five — natives of countries stretching from Norway to Tanzania to Colombia — are back home telling friends of a different America than they expected. And their brief visit reverberates in America as a United States senator demands accountability and reform, a Pennsylvania district attorney seeks criminal charges and the U.S. State Department concedes it failed to protect kids coming to America.
«We at the Department of State recognize [because we] are responsible for this program we have to make sure we are aggressively overseeing this program and make sure children are well-suited,» said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
«This is a program that is very important to the Department of State,» Crowley said. «We are talking 15- to 18-year-old children. We are introducing them to the United States. We are trying to put our best foot forward. We recognize in this incident in Scranton and also elsewhere around the country we have failed to do so.»
What happened in Scranton, according to Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney Andrew Jarbola, is a crime. He has convened a grand jury to look into the families where some of the 12 students who came to Scranton were placed, as well as the company who placed them there and its officials.
«Well, in my opinion they were treated kind of crudely,» Jarbola said. «Not provided the proper food, hygiene and things of that nature. And the areas they were placed? I know one of the students was placed in a home with a convicted felon — convicted of drug trafficking or drug offenses — and that is very disturbing to me.»
Jarbola said some students were so malnourished that one was treated in a hospital for dehydration while another passed out during track at school.
«They weren’t provided with food,» Jarbola said. «In fact there is one incident with tape on food items in the refrigerator of the host family that says, ‘Do not touch. This is for the host family only.’ So basically they were neglected.»
The company that placed the students first denied any problems existed, then said it had corrected them and fired those responsible. The families who housed the students say the allegations are untrue. But the students themselves tell a different story.
‘It was nothing like I had envisioned’
The San Francisco-based Aspect Foundation sponsored all 12 of the Scranton students, some of whom were on State Department grants. On its Web site, the Aspect Foundation says it began in 1985 as «a small non-profit organization offering affordable study-abroad opportunities to students from around the world,» and now «students live with volunteer host families in more than 350 communities throughout the United States.»
In 2008, the State Department gave 17 placement groups $39.4 million in taxpayer funds to manage programs involving exchange students. Aspect received $1.08 million of those funds.
Carlos Villarreal’s family, however, paid their son’s way to America from Colombia, giving Aspect $13,000 for him to study here. Villarreal said he lived with a family that housed ex-convicts and that he had very little to eat. He said his mother’s repeated contacts with Aspect about his situation were ignored.
«I lost a lot of body weight, and [it was] an unsafe environment which I felt uncomfortable living in, and it was nothing like I had envisioned my experience in America,» he said.
The Rev. Elmer Smith told CNN he took in Villarreal as a favor to Aspect’s local coordinator, Edna Burgette, and denied he failed to feed him.
«The boy had no place to go, so I took him in and I fed him,» Smith said. «He had a television in his room, he had heat in his room, he had air-conditioning in his room.»
Another woman who hosted students said she was sitting on her porch when Burgette walked by and asked her if she would take in a child. Like Smith, the woman said that she was just trying to help a student whom she was told had nowhere else to go.
Jarbola said a girl from Norway, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Anne, tried to alert officials that she and some of the students were in dire straits.
Anne told CNN she had school officials send an e-mail to Aspect in October explaining how bad things were and including photographs of the inside of the home where she was placed. The home was later condemned by the city.
Anne’s high school principal took her in, but other students weren’t as lucky and spent nearly the entire school year in unsafe homes, until Children and Youth Services was tipped off about a month before school ended, Jarbola said.
Jarbola, who said Anne’s e-mail is now evidence in the criminal investigation, told CNN that when welfare officials interviewed the students, one was so hungry he wept when they gave him pizza during questioning. In all, five of the students were removed from homes where they’d been placed by Aspect.
Sponsoring agencies asked to police themselves
U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pennsylvania, said the situation sickened him.
«I’m the father of four daughters,» he said. «I would never want my daughter nor would any parent want their daughter or son exposed to these kinds of conditions anywhere, but especially when you’re in a foreign country. And in this case the United States was this foreign country.»
Aspect gave conflicting responses to CNN.
Vivian Fearen, its executive director, did not return calls seeking comment. Her Pennsylvania public relations firm issued a statement blaming the Scranton problem on Burgette, who was fired once the allegations surfaced in the Scranton media.
Burgette also did not respond to repeated attempts by CNN for comment.
Later, however, Aspect issued a statement through the public relations firm.
«Based on their own investigation and verification from county children and youth officials, Aspect Foundation was led to believe that none of their students in northeastern Pennsylvania was abused, malnourished or dehydrated,» said Karen Walsh, public affairs director for the Neiman Group.
But the statement also said Aspect «fully acknowledges that what happened in Scranton, Pennsylvania, was deplorable and in complete violation of their own strict standards and those of the Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program.»
«Aspect Foundation has corrected the problems; terminated or accepted the resignations of those who were responsible for them; and established new policies and procedures to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again,» Walsh said.
Walsh said the Lackawanna County Children and Youth Services agency reported no Aspect students in Scranton required medical attention and only three were relocated. In addition to Burgette’s firing, Walsh said, two other supervisors resigned.
But the district attorney and other officials in Lackawanna County dispute Aspect’s contention. Jarbola said two received medical attention. All told, according to Jarbola, five were relocated, and those cases are being reviewed by the grand jury.
But Casey’s staff pointed out that Aspect employed Burgette for 10 years, making it difficult to portray her simply as a rogue employee.
Casey said Aspect knew in October the students were in trouble and chose to ignore it. But he saved most of his anger for the State Department, which allows groups like Aspect to police themselves.
«It’s about time that the State Department complete its investigation — even as the grand jury is working — complete the investigation, level tough sanctions and make improvements to this program in terms of oversight,» Casey said.
In its initial statement to CNN, the State Department said when it hears of allegations, «we immediately contact the sponsoring organization involved and ask them to investigate. We gather full information and act swiftly and appropriately.»
That’s the problem, argue critics, who say the department has had a hands-off policy for years when it comes to foreign exchange group sponsors. When complaints are made against the sponsor, they are asked to investigate themselves.
Arkansas legislator Sue Madison said she had a law passed in her state to protect students after it was discovered some of them were forced to do manual labor, live in unfit conditions and even forced to hand over their money to host families.
«You make a complaint to the State Department and you basically never hear from them again,» Madison said, explaining why she decided her state needed a law to do its own enforcement.
Watchdog groups struggle to get State Department’s attention
Danielle Grijalva, director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, said she once worked in the industry. The agencies, which she calls unregulated travel agents, can make millions of dollars enticing rich foreigners and lobbying for State Department grants to lure scholarship-eligible students here for a year of study.
Her group now monitors complaints. The situation in Scranton, she said, is not isolated — nor is the State Department’s initial response to the crisis. She fields calls from parents and students alike who complain they have nowhere else to turn.
«It’s self-regulated, unmonitored, under-reported,» Grijalva said. «Students being raped, placed in the homes of convicted felons, placed in the homes of registered sex offenders, come to the United States and lose 20, 30, 40 pounds.»
Grijalva shared e-mails with CNN which she said came from parents and students and host families — even correspondence with the State Department managers who oversee the program.
The State Department «will not accept as a complaint any matter that is not presented to us by an involved party to the exchange agency,» she was told in a 2006 e-mail by Stanley Colvin, a deputy assistant secretary for private-sector exchange.
Complaints forwarded by watchdog groups like hers, she said, are not considered by the State Department as worthy of investigation.
The State Department turned down CNN’s request to talk to Colvin or other managers directly involved in managing the exchange programs.
«When we bring this to the attention of the State Department, once again, it’s a business issue, they can’t get involved and they continue to look the other way,» Grijalva said.
Crowley said the department is not looking the other way now. He said the Scranton situation showed the department «tended to inspect by exception. Only when we were aware of dire circumstances did we send an investigator out.»
Crowley said the department asked the inspector general’s office to investigate Aspect but also plans to inspect its own management controls. He said that given the number of students, the department will still have to depend on sponsoring agencies to monitor the students they bring over. But he said the State Department can and will do more.
«We do recognize that the oversight of this program at the State Department was not strong enough, not aggressive enough,» Crowley said.
«We were not out there in the community looking hard at where our children were. We have already taken steps to put more eyes on these homes around the country so that in the future not only will we be putting the appropriate emphasis on the agents that are responsible first and foremost for oversight we’ll be looking over their shoulders as well.
«That did not happen certainly in the case of Scranton,» he said.
Crowley also released a June 12 report on Aspect written by Colvin. In it, Colvin said the department has warned the industry for the past three years that it was becoming harder to find suitable host families. It said the department specifically told Aspect that an audit found the group only complying with host family screening requirements 67.7 percent of the time. It’s unclear from the report why the State Department did not stop awarding Aspect grants at that point.
After finding a number of violations in Scranton, Colvin said the state would sanction Aspect by reducing the number of students it can bring over by 15 percent. Based on the fees it charges, the penalty, Colvin wrote, will result in a revenue loss of $540,000.
However, there is no mention in the report whether Aspect will have to return any of the $1 million of taxpayer-funded grants it received for the 2008-2009 school year. The State Department did not respond to repeated requests for clarification.
Meanwhile, Tanzanian student Musa Mpulki has since returned home. Before he left, he told CNN he did not want to upset his mother, so he never told her that he had little to eat during his nine-month stay in the home of a 72-year-old man who had signs on his refrigerator that some food was only for family.
Although his housing situation was a nightmare, Mpulki said the students at the school made him appreciate America, and he said he appreciated the State Department grant that brought him to the United States.
«I guess I like to say, ‘Thank you very much the government of the United States for to bring me here to get a good experience at the school and a good education.’ »