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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 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 Jul 23: Exchange students say complaints were ignored by program officials

The Times Tribune | By Erin L. Nissley (Staff Writer) | Published: July 23, 2009

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.

Contact the writer:  enissley@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

2009: Foreign-exchange coordinator arrested

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.

Contact the writer: jmcdonald@timesshamrock.com


Saksforløp

2009 jul 16: «Exchange students live American nightmare»

/US
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.

Exchange student Carlos Villareal of Colombia says he was underfed and kept in "an unsafe environment."
Exchange student Carlos Villareal of Colombia says he was underfed and kept in «an unsafe environment.» Source: CNN

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.

Despite conditions, Tanzanian student says ‘thank you’

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.’ »


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