Stikkordarkiv: #SkrøpeligHus

Local neglect allegations open door to a world where students are shuffled from home to home

The Times Tribune | BY SARAH HOFIUS HALL (STAFF WRITER) | Published: May 31, 2009

House by house, Edna Burgette knocked on doors last fall in her Scranton neighborhood, asking whomever answered whether the 17-year-old Colombian boy at her side could stay with them for the school year.

«Take him. He is a good boy. He speaks English,» Mrs. Burgette said. People closed their doors in his face.

The boy then spent several months in a home with an 80-year-old man, where he was not allowed to eat food in the refrigerator, and where he lost too much weight.

The scenario, written in a complaint to the U.S. Department of State by his mother, Nemesia Lago, was not the taste of American life the boy was promised – and paid for.

Foreign students and past host parents allege that Mrs. Burgette, as an area coordinator for the Aspect Foundation, brought students from countries around the world to Scranton without first securing them a place to live.

The students report living in filthy homes which were later condemned, being shuffled from home to home, including living with ex-convicts. At least one required medical attention for not being given adequate food and drink. A criminal investigation is under way into the treatment of nine Lackawanna County students, and three in Luzerne County.

The scandal is just now coming into public view, as a Lackawanna County grand jury considers whether charges are warranted for the alleged exploitation.

But those involved tell The Times-Tribune that Mrs. Burgette has operated an inadequate foreign-exchange system here for at least a decade. They shared new details of an exchange program that takes in much money but takes on little responsibility.

Advocates say the situation here is extreme, but also an example of lapses nationwide, permitted by a lack of oversight and fueled by greed.

An ‘American family’

Foreign-exchange students are promised a taste of American life, by spending a year at an American high school and being part of a local family. Each year, 30,000 students come to the United States through the country’s visitor-exchange  program.

They experience family outings and holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas – neither of which the boy from Colombia got to celebrate in the home he was placed in, his mother wrote in an e-mail to The Times-Tribune.

«He has always admired the American culture and way of life … and wanted to spend a year of his life experiencing firsthand all of the good things that he had seen and heard. … We, his parents, thought that a year in the U.S. would help him mature, know more people, help him to learn to make choices in life, have a white Christmas and have the best experience of his life,» Ms. Lago wrote.

Such hopes were worth a lot to Ms. Lago.

She said she spent about $12,000, most of which went to the San Francisco-based Aspect Foundation, to send her son to America. In the year ending Sept. 30, 2007, Aspect placed 1,109 students in host homes, according to IRS forms it submitted.

The fee is supposed to provide for individual host family selection, high school placement and room and board, provided by a «carefully selected volunteer host family,» according to Aspect’s Web site.

Repeated attempts last week to contact a representative from Aspect or Mrs. Burgette  were unsuccessful. Mrs. Burgette was removed from her position after the allegations of neglect surfaced.

Host families are not paid to provide room and board for the student, and students must bring their own spending money.

But working for the foreign-exchange agency can be profitable. Mrs. Burgette was paid for each student she brought to the region.

Danielle Grijalva, director of the California-based Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, estimates Mrs. Burgette received between $750 and $1,150 per student, plus bonuses like trips and other stipends at the foundation’s expense.

As a coordinator, Mrs. Burgette was responsible for matching students with host families, supporting students and families and planning activities to introduce students to America, according to Aspect’s Web site.

All of this year’s students, who are between the ages of 15 and 18 and come from countries including Nigeria, Denmark, Vietnam, Norway, Tanzania, France and Colombia, are now living with suitable host families.

Until now, that was rarely the case.

Long-standing issue

A decade ago, while in the neighborhood, 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.

«Pack your suitcase; you’re coming with me,» Mrs. DelGuercio said she told the girl.

The student, and several others who lived in the home, were placed there by Mrs. Burgette. They had come to America with promises of experiencing life with an American family.

The same residence at 810 Myrtle St. was condemned earlier this month, after a student from Nigeria, who was placed there by Mrs. Burgette, was found living with floors covered in dog feces. It is unclear how often Mrs. Burgette stays at the home.

Ten years ago, Mrs. DelGuercio said she contacted the Aspect Foundation and made complaints, with no response.

Over the next few years, the DelGuercios accepted five more foreign-exchange students from Mrs. Burgette. When the students arrived in Scranton, Mrs. Burgette had made no arrangements for them, including enrolling them in school, Mrs. DelGuercio said.

«We felt sorry for these children,» she added. «We were just making up for her negligence.»

Ten years ago, the first student the DelGuercios rescued paid between $6,000 and $7,000 to Aspect, not including airfare, for the American experience, Mrs. DelGuercio said.

«To me, it borders on human trafficking,» she added. «What kind of an attitude do they take back to their home countries? It’s just totally awful.»

School concerns

In fall 2001, William King, then the West Scranton High School principal, had reservations about the home of a foreign exchange student who was enrolled at West.

«It was not what you and I would want to live in,» said Mr. King, who will become the district’s superintendent July 1.

Mrs. Burgette had placed the student in the home.

As principal, Mr. King said he discontinued the West Scranton school’s relationship with Aspect, but Scranton High continued to accept students. To his knowledge, Mr. King said, no problems had been brought to the attention of Scranton High administrators.

Teresa Osborne, Lackawanna County director of human services, said she had no knowledge of prior complaints against Mrs. Burgette, but when reached late Friday, said she would check the county’s database Monday.

Eventually, Mrs. Burgette was allowed by another principal to re-enroll students at West.

After this school year, the entire Scranton School District will no longer accept Aspect students, and officials have developed new guidelines, including reviewing criminal background checks of future host families from other companies, Mr. King said.

«If they choose not to do that, then we’ll choose not to deal with them,» he said.

National problem

Across the country, foreign-exchange students have been found living in a variety of unsatisfactory conditions.

«These cases are rampant. It’s not just in Pennsylvania,» said Ms. Grijalva,  of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students.

In Oregon, a man was charged this month with sexually assaulting the foreign exchange student who was living with him. The teenager was placed there by AYUSA Global Youth Exchange, which reported the alleged assault to police.

In Minnesota, the California-based Council for Educational Travel USA reportedly did not have homes lined up for students before they arrived. A student from Norway reported that he lent his host family $1,000 for groceries and their son’s acting classes, and the state announced an investigation earlier this month.

In February, Allentown-based United Student Exchange was ordered by a court to halt all activities, based on students not being placed in proper homes, and the group’s owners diverting $100,000 that was meant to pay school tuition.

In other places, Ms. Grijalva has seen a student be given a sleeping bag and told to stay in a musty basement, and another student being forced to sleep on a pool table in a garage.

«What is so concerning and disheartening, the reason why these problems occur, is because the placement agencies get greedy,» Ms. Grijalva said.

Federal investigation launched

Last week, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to investigate the department’s oversight of U.S. youth-exchange programs, based on what is happening in the region.

The U.S. Department of State is now reviewing the allegations and its own oversight protocols.

Under Department of State regulations, agencies must «ensure that the host family has a good reputation and character by securing two personal references for each host family from the school or community, attesting to the host family’s good reputation and character» and verify that members of the host family have undergone a criminal background check.

Parents question whether this was done.

Other foreign exchange placement agencies say they follow the rules.

Before placements are made through the ASSE International Student Exchange Programs, a criminal background check and a home visit are done, and three references are contacted.

Representatives have to answer, «Would they allow their own family member to live with this family?» according to Sue Nelson, the company’s coordinator for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. «We try to be very thorough,» she said.

Tunkhannnock resident Nick Aiello, regional manager of Horizons Du Monde student exchange agency, said local coordinators work through schools and churches to find families interested in hosting students.

A telephone interview is first conducted, and a home visit is mandatory, Mr. Aiello said. The current neglect investigation will have a negative impact on students wanting to come to this region, he said.

«Reputations are on the line; families are concerned,» he said.

Shattered dreams

Ms. Lago made repeated complaints to Aspect about the living conditions her son was enduring. He wanted to go home. The complaints were never answered.

«We felt helpless, frustrated and very angry that our son’s dream year was shattered and broken,» she wrote in her e-mail.

After learning of his situation, another family took the boy in earlier this year. Though his time recently in the U.S. has been what he originally expected, Ms. Lago said he was robbed of his full American experience.

Students will return to their homes in the coming weeks. Ms. Lago said she wants a full refund.

«The cultural learning, appreciation, sharing and the unconditional support that a host family could have given my son, never happened,» she wrote.

Contact the writer:  shofius@timesshamrock.com


Saksforløp

2009 Jul 16: State Department punishes exchange student company as criminal probe widens

The Times Tribune | BY SARAH HOFIUS HALL (STAFF WRITER) | Published: July 16, 2009

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.

Regulations violated

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: shofius@timesshamrock.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.

Saksforløp

2009 Jul 19: Exchange student neglect happened a decade ago, host parent says

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.

Charges possible

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.

Contact the writer: shofius@timesshamrock.com


Saksforløp

2009 Oct 23: Changes recommended for foreign-exchange programs after Scranton scandal

The Times Tribune | BY SARAH HOFIUS HALL (STAFF WRITER) | Published: October 23, 2009
Edna Burgette 1Photo: N/A, License: N/A, Created: 2009:07:22 16:15:52
Edna Burgette

Click here to read the report (pdf)

Insufficient oversight and resources plague the department responsible for overseeing foreign-exchange student programs nationwide, a report released Thursday found.

The probe by the U.S. Office of Inspector General was initiated after up to 12 students alleged they were neglected after being placed in Scranton-area homes during the 2008-09 school year. The case exposed the national lack of oversight and significant lapses in background checks for hosts of the 30,000 international students who come to the U.S. each year.

In the Scranton case, local coordinator Edna Burgette allegedly placed students in homes without completing background checks and shuffled some students from home to home.

The students told investigators they lived in filthy homes, some of which were later condemned. Several said they were living with an ex-convict, and at least one student required medical attention for lack of adequate nutrition. All said Ms. Burgette, now the former area coordinator for San Francisco-based Aspect Foundation, ignored their complaints, even though she was paid by Aspect to place the students and check up on them.

Last summer, Ms. Burgette was charged with five counts of endangering the welfare of children. She was fired when Aspect learned of the allegations.

The Department of State has penalized Aspect. The department is limiting the number of student visas Aspect can receive in 2009-10 by 15 percent, leading to a potential $540,000 loss of revenue.

The inspector’s report, while it did not mention the Scranton case, made several recommendations that could have made a difference in Northeast Pennsylvania.

According to the report, individuals within the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, responsible for overseeing exchanges, have not been directly monitoring students and instead were relying on the private educational associations, such as Aspect, to oversee students.

«There is an inherent danger in ascribing major responsibilities without clear guidance and support,» the report stated.

Aspect relied on Ms. Burgette to report problems and to make sure students were safe, and she did neither, Aspect officials have previously stated.

The report recommends the department be given adequate resources to conduct periodic unannounced site visits, and to establish a database to record student complaints and incidents so it is easier track problems.

The report also calls for national criminal history background checks to be given to potential host families.

Background checks vary significantly across the country, from not being done at all or relying on references from family and neighbors, to comprehensive checks, said Danielle Grijalva, director of the California-based Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students.

«You’ve got to do it right the first time,» she said.

While Ms. Grijalva had some reservations about the report, she said if taken seriously it could make a difference in the overall quality and safety of foreign-exchange programs.

«The problems will only repeat themselves if we do not get serious and make changes,» she said.

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who has called for an overhaul in exchange program oversight, said incidents in Scranton «were allowed to happen, in part, because of a lack of clear regulations that allowed sponsor organizations to interpret the rules in a manner that ultimately endangered these students.»

The «real measure of progress will be what specific steps are taken to prevent this problem from happening again.»

Contact the writer: shofius@timesshamrock.com


Related stories

State Department statement

Problemer: Bytte familie, dyreavføring, lite mat

Aftenposten skriver i 2012 en artikkel om Espen Hansens historie i USA. Journalist Elisabeth Randsborg skriver som følger:

Det første han husker, er lukten. Lukten av møkk og avfall. Av hunder, som gjorde fra seg innendørs. Av katten, som romsterte rundt på kjøkkenbenken. Lukten av et tett toalett – dusjforhenget, som var grodd fast i badekaret.

– Jeg har aldri sett noe så møkkete i hele mitt liv.

Espen Hansen, nå 20 år gammel, beskriver førsteinntrykket den dagen han kom til sin vertsfamilie som utvekslingsstudent til USA høsten 2007. Han er én av drøyt 1300 norske 16-åringer som hvert år velger å ta andre videregående skoleår i utlandet. Espen var full av forventning. Han hadde forberedt seg godt i tiden før avreise, men var overhodet ikke klar for det som møtte ham hos vertsfamilien i den lille byen Norwood Young America i Minnesota.

  • Familien hadde hatt en utvekslingsstudent før meg, en jente fra Brasil, og hun sendte meg meldinger på Facebook og prøvde å advare meg. Da jeg kom dit, skjønte jeg at jeg burde tatt de advarslene på alvor. I begynnelsen gikk det greit, og jeg forsøkte å venne meg til hygienen i huset. Jeg er en person som ikke klager mye, så jeg forsøkte å gjøre det beste ut av det. Men det viste seg fort at det var mer enn skitt og rot som plaget denne familien.

De var en familie på fire. Mor og far, en datter på 14 og en sønn på 12. Barna fikk unngjelde for foreldrenes krangling og ekteskapsproblemer, farens aggressivitet og mishandling. De søkte trøst og fortrolighet hos Espen, og han syntes synd på barna.

Derfor fortalte han ikke så mye til foreldrene hjemme i Norge. Derfor brukte han penger – mange hundre dollar – for å kjøpe mat og spe på familiens slunkne kjøleskap. Vertsmoren betrodde seg til ham. Fortalte om familiens vanskelige økonomi. Om sine egne ønsker om å forlate mannen. Om mannens trusler om å drepe både henne og barna hvis hun forsøkte.

– Han var ustabil og oppfarende. Han kjeftet og truet, men han slo meg aldri. Han beskyldte vertsmoren min for å ha et forhold til meg, og da ble jeg for alvor redd og urolig og turde ikke bo der lenger.

Nå var også Espens foreldre hjemme i Norge klar over vanskelighetene. De kontaktet EF Highschool Year, organisasjonen som sendte Espen til USA, for at de skulle finne en ny vertsfamilie til ham, men ingen ting skjedde.

Koordinator

Når utvekslingsstudentene lander i USA, er det ofte en amerikansk partnerorganisasjon som overtar ansvaret for studentene. Det er disse amerikanske organisasjonene som har rekruttert vertsfamiliene, og som har ansvaret for å sjekke at familiene er egnet til å ha en utvekslingsstudent boende hos seg et helt år. Det er også de amerikanske organisasjonene som skal oppnevne en lokal koordinator for hver enkelt student – en koordinator, som skal følge opp studenten og være til støtte og hjelp hvis det dukker opp problemer. Denne personen er studentens myndighetsperson så lenge USA-oppholdet varer.

  • Utvekslingsbransjen er en milliardindustri – det er snakk om store penger – og det er en industri preget av grådighet. De lokale koordinatorene får betalt for hver student de klarer å plassere. På grunn av de økonomiske nedgangstidene kommer det flere studenter til USA enn organisasjonene klarer å skaffe gode vertsfamilier til. Derfor hender det at de lokale koordinatorene overtaler venner og bekjente – til og med betaler dem penger, noe de ikke har lov til – for at de skal bli vertsfamilier for utvekslingsstudenter. Når det oppstår problemer, er disse koordinatorene mer opptatt av å beskytte seg selv og sine venner og bekjente enn å hjelpe studentene. Denne bransjen mangler integritet, sier Danielle Grijalva til Aftenposten.

Hun leder en frivillig organisasjon – Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students (CSFES) – som arbeider for å hjelpe studenter som opplever problemer under sitt utvekslingsopphold i USA. Danielle Grijalva arbeidet selv i utvekslingsbransjen før hun etablerte CSFES i 2004.

  • Jeg så mange ting jeg ikke likte. Studenter som ble seksuelt misbrukt, tatt bilder av, servert alkohol og tvunget til å se porno. Dette ville jeg gjøre noe med. Nå er vi 1700 personer verden over som arbeider for utvekslingsstudentenes sikkerhet, og for å gjøre myndighetene både her i USA og i hjemlandene klar over hva som foregår.

Bare i løpet av det siste året er CSFES kontaktet av 10–12 norske utvekslingsstudenter i USA som trenger hjelp.

Husarrest

Situasjonen hjemme hos Espen Hansens vertsfamilie eskalerte, og han fikk lov til å bo hos en lærer på skolen der han gikk. – De to beste ukene av hele USA-oppholdet.

Men så dukket hans lokale koordinator opp – en person han ikke hadde sett mye til tidligere.

  • Hun forlangte at jeg skulle bli med henne, hjem til henne og mannen hennes. De holdt meg i husarrest i et rom i kjelleren i to døgn. Forhørte meg, tok mobilen min, fjernet bilder på kameraet mitt, gikk gjennom alle tingene mine. Jeg hadde gjemt unna min norske mobil, så jeg fikk ringt hjem og fortalt hva som skjedde, Moren til en amerikansk venn av meg kontaktet politiet, og de dukket opp. Etter å ha snakket med koordinatoren min, forlot politiet huset og sa: «Sorry, you’re on your own». Da ble jeg skikkelig redd.

Espens mor hadde i mellomtiden funnet frem til Danielle Grijalva og hennes organisasjon CSFES på nettet. Hun kunne fortelle at det hadde vært flere episoder med denne koordinatoren tidligere, og at det var registrert 72 politianmeldelser mot den vertsfamilien Espen var plassert hos. På ny ble politiet kontaktet, og denne gangen tok de med seg Espen, kjørte ham til et hemmelig sted og innlemmet ham i sitt spesielle vitnebeskyttelsesprogram. Også det lokale barnevernet ble koblet inn.

Etter tre dager trakk både barnevern og politi seg tilbake. Det var ikke mer de kunne gjøre. Espen var igjene overlatt til koordinatoren, sin myndighetsperson.

Koordinatoren kom med nye trusler og ville tvinge Espen på et fly tilbake til Norge, og på ny ble Espen tatt hånd om av politiet og innlemmet i deres vitnebeskyttelsesprogram.

  • Da var jeg så nedkjørt at jeg bare ville hjem til Norge.

Som å spille Lotto

I mars 2008 – åtte måneder etter at han dro til USA – kom en psykisk nedbrutt Espen tilbake til hjemlandet. Han led av dyp depresjon og sosial angst. Var innesluttet og holdt seg for seg selv. Foreldrene hans ønsket å gå til søksmål mot EF Highschool Year, men droppet det av hensyn til Espens helsetilstand. Han har fått hjelp av psykolog, og nå – fire år etter – er han på bena igjen og i gang med ny utdannelse.

  • Jeg vet at mange har fine opplevelser som utvekslingsstudenter. Men å melde seg på utveksling er som å spille Lotto – du kan enten være veldig heldig eller veldig uheldig, men du vet aldri hva du utsetter deg for. Det er et svært dårlig samarbeid mellom de norske organisasjonene og de amerikanske samarbeidspartnerne i den andre enden. Det er ingen kontroll, alt dreier seg bare om penger. Oppstår det problemer, så sender de deg bare hjem, og det er altfor dårlig kontroll av vertsfamiliene. Hvorfor plukker de ut familier som ikke kan ta vare på seg selv en gang, langt mindre en utvekslingsstudent?

Én av hundre anmeldt

Den britiske, nå pensjonerte politimannen Chris Gould vet mye om vertsfamilier som ikke duger. I mange år ledet han Child Protection-enheten hos politiet i Avon og Somerset, og i 1998 etterforsket han en 12 år gammel spansk utvekslingselev som ble seksuelt misbrukt av sin vertsfar, som viste seg å være en kjent seksualforbryter i Storbritannia. Siden den gang har han arbeidet for utvekslingsstudenters ve og vel og leder nå interesseorganisasjonen Child-Safe International.

  • I løpet av 12 måneder undersøkte jeg 2000 saker der utvekslingsstudenter var blitt utsatt for overgrep, sex, omsorgssvikt og mishandling. Kun 20 tilfeller – bare én prosent – var blitt anmeldt, så det er en stor grad av underrapportering i disse sakene. Dette er en bransje styrt av store penger, og mange av organisasjonene burde stenges. Det finnes pedofile som aktivt samarbeider med noen av dem. Myndighetene vet lite om hva som foregår, og når jeg snakker med dem, virker de ikke spesielt interessert. De stikker hodet i sanden og orker ikke ta i dette. Men velgerne burde være bekymret over at politikerne viser så liten interesse, sier Gould til Aftenposten.

Mange historier

Espen Hansen er ikke den eneste norske studenten som har hatt negative opplevelser i USA. Et kjapt søk på nettet og det hagler med historier. Én av dem tilhører Mari Cecilie Berland. Også hun reiste ut som 16-åring med EF Highschool Year høsten 2007, for å bo hos det hun trodde skulle være en familie med fire barn. Men den nedslitte boligen i Nebraska huset i tillegg fire hunder, en annen utvekslingsstudent, to fosterbarn, en venninne av vertsmor og hennes sønn. Dessuten var vertsmor dagmamma for opp til ti barn under tre år.

  • Vi var til enhver tid mellom 12 og 20 mennesker i det huset. Det var som å bo på et barnehjem, sier Mari Cecilie.

Hun måtte dele bad med syv andre og fikk tildelt dusjtid kl. 05 om morgenen. Det var dårlig med mat, de måtte spise og studere sittende på gulvet. Hun gråt, ba om hjelp, men følte seg neglisjert og fikk mye kjeft. Ba om å få bytte familie, men uten resultat. Også her viste det seg at koordinatoren var en nær venn av vertsfamilien. Da en psykolog ga Mari Cecilie diagnosen dyp depresjon og foreslo antidepressiva og sovepiller, bestemte hun og foreldrene at det var tid for å returnere til Norge.

  • Det verste var at EF ikke tok noe ansvar eller fulgte meg opp. De reklamerer med at de tar ansvar 24 timer i døgnet – det var derfor jeg valgte dem. Men når noe skjer, er de ikke der. Når du er 16 år og befinner deg alene på den andre siden av kloden og andre personer har myndighet over deg, da føler du deg ikke veldig høy i hatten. Jeg vil ikke advare andre mot et utvekslingsår i USA, men jeg vil advare mot EF. Man bør være veldig nøye når man velger hvilken organisasjon man reiser ut med.

Hun har blogget om sine USA-opplevelser, og hun har fått mange reaksjoner fra andre som også har dårlige erfaringer. Hennes far, Arild Berland, dannet en gruppe på Facebook for andre som også hadde negative erfaringer med EF.

  • Veldig mange har tatt kontakt med oss, og problemene er særlig knyttet til vertsfamiliene og vanskeligheter med å få byttet familie. Det er for mange som har negative opplevelser, og det verste er at vi får ingen unnskyldning en gang. EF beklager at jeg opplevde det slik, men de beklager ikke det som skjedde, sier Mari Cecilie.

Forlik

Mange av studentene som har negative opplevelser, forsøker å få erstatning og oppreisning når de kommer hjem. Vilde Strøm er én av dem. Hun dro til USA i august 2009. Etter knapt fire døgn hos sin vertsfamilie i Michigan var politiet tilkalt og Vilde ble reddet ut av en fjern, amerikansk slektning. Det var fire døgn med trusler, krangling, neglisjering og bråk. En arbeidsløs vertsfar og dårlig økonomi i en sosialt vanskeligstilt familie. En koordinator, som viste seg å være nær venn av familien, og som truet med å kidnappe henne. Og en psykisk syk sønn i huset, som selv vertsmor advarte henne mot.

«Jeg tror ikke han vil prøve seg på noe seksuelt, men ta godt vare på verdisakene dine», sa vertsmoren til Vilde.

Foreldrene i Norge mobiliserte. Kontaktet organisasjonen Vilde hadde reist ut med, uten resultat. Kontaktet den norske ambassaden i Washington, CSFES og en fjern slektning i Chicago, med resultat, og etter mye om og men kom Vilde tilbake til Norge.

– I begynnelsen hadde jeg ofte mareritt – jeg var redd for at de skulle spore meg opp. Selv nå får jeg støkk hver gang jeg reiser bort, for jeg er redd jeg ikke skal komme hjem igjen. Jeg føler meg som en 50-åring og er redd for å dø, forteller 19 år gamle Vilde.

Hun har fått profesjonell hjelp til å takle angsten, og til sommeren skal hun gjenoppta utdannelsen.

Vildes foreldre inngikk et forlik med organisasjonen som hadde sendte henne til USA. Mot en kompensasjon på snaut 40 000 kroner forpliktet Vilde og foreldrene seg til ikke å omtale episoden og navngi organisasjonen.

Må på banen

  • Men jeg vil appellere til norske politikere om å våkne opp og se hva som foregår. De må opprette et kontrollorgan og få på plass lover som kan regulere dette, og de må sørge for at også de amerikanske partnerorganisasjonene blir grundig kontrollert. Det er mye snusk med vertsfamiliene.
  • Jeg vil sterkt oppfordre alle som vil reise ut, til å vurdere nøye hvilken organisasjon de reiser med. Og foreldrene bør alliere seg med noen i vertslandet som kan være verge for barnet mens det er ute. Man er 16 år og føler seg voksen og klar for dette, men USA er virkelig langt unna når man er alene.

CSFES og Danielle Grijalva liker dårlig at familiene inngår forlik med organisasjonene.

– Det bidrar bare til å feie dette problemet under teppet, man selger på en måte sjelen sin til djevelen ved å holde munn om hva barna er blitt utsatt for. Vi trenger søkelys på det jeg vil beskrive som et klart mønster av utnyttelse. Studentene er overlatt til organisasjonenes og vertsfamiliens forgodtbefinnende fra den dagen de lander i USA, sier Grijalva.

Avviser at EF er versting

EF Highschool Year er den største aktøren på det norske markedet og sender flere hundre studenter til USA hvert år. Nøyaktig hvor mange, vil de ikke opplyse om. Landansvarlig for EF i Norge, Morten Davidsen, tilbakeviser at organisasjonen er noen versting.

  • Vårt slagord er å gi studentene «the best time of your life», det er det vi jobber for hver dag. Et utenlandsopphold byr på mange førstegangsopplevelser for studentene. Noen takler det lett, andre kan få det tøffere. De fleste er fornøyd, men det hender vi har noen tilfeller der det blir utfordringer, sier Davidsen.

– Hva slags problemer?

  • Jeg vil ikke kommentere konkrete saker, men de tilfellene der det har vært vanskeligheter, er saker som har involvert våre samarbeidsorganisasjoner i USA. Vi har hørt at det kan ha vært lokale representanter som har vært for nært knyttet til vertsfamiliene, og det kan være manglende rutiner for hvordan man følger opp studentene og vertsfamiliene. Derfor har vi besluttet at vi fra og med i år kutter ut samarbeidet med våre samarbeidsorganisasjoner i USA og vil stå for hele prosessen selv. Det blir EF hele veien, og da blir det lettere for oss å følge opp hvis det oppstår problemer.

Vanlige problemer: Bytte familie, lite mat, trusler

J,H. skriver:

Jeg reiste til USA i 01/02 , til Idaho, og jeg ble plassert hos en alenemor med 3 døtre som arbeidet to jobber, gikk på college og bodde i en skrøpelig bakdel av moren sitt hus. Den eldste datteren måtte sove på sofaen hos bestemoren det året jeg skulle være der, og de hadde ikke telefon. Alle måltider skulle spises på skolen.

Og det ‘beste’ av alt; områderepresentaten VAR vertsmoren min – så hun fikk betalt for å ha meg der. Og hjemmet hvor jeg var ble aldri sjekket ut på forhånd av noen andre.

Jeg reiste med STS – men det skal nevnes at vi fikk gehør når vi tok kontakt med dem, og jeg ble flyttet (eller det vil si – jeg fant en annen familie å bo hos selv – jeg ble ikke tilbudt noe annet i samme området av organisasjonen).

I etterkant kom trusler fra familien om at jeg skulle saksøkes for å ha ødelagt ryktet deres etc – noe som er skremmende å få på seg som 16 åring.

De fleste jeg kjenner som var ute et år hadde et kjempeår – og jeg ville gjort det igjen om jeg kunne. Det var lærerikt og var en opplevelse jeg aldri kommer til å glemme, for better or worse. Jeg vil ikke advare andre mot å ta et utvekslingsår i utlandet, men jeg vil anbefale at en ikke tar for gitt at familiene er kvalitetssikret.

Problemer: Bytte familie, tyveri, skittent, falleferdig

robotrock skriver:

Gjennom EF ble jeg sendt til en familie hvor en alenemor stjal  penger  ved flere anledninger av min konto og kontanter, åpnet min post fra banken, tok ut penger fra mitt kort osv. Det ble rettsak og jeg fikk erstattet alt bortsett  fra  kontanter jeg ikke hadde bevis for å ha blitt frastjålet.

Denne moren var mistenkt for tyveri tidligere og registrert hos politiet for dette. Det var elendig hygiene i huset, hundene, hagen og falleferdig bygg.

HELDIGVIS fikk jeg byttet familie etter 3mnd. Den første familien var det ubegripelig at noen kunne få seg til å sende utvekslingselever til. Når en er ung og uerfaren godtar en lettere og prøver å leve med det. Dette blir utnyttet mot frynsegoder for områderepresentantene.  En blir advart om at ting er annerledes, kultursjokk osv. før en reiser over, men det får være grenser for hva en skal godta!

Jo fler de får plassert, jo flere frynsegoder. Horribel business!