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.
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.»
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.
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.
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: email@example.com