State Department failed to protect foreign exchange students

Last night, Rock Center aired a piece about the sexual abuse of foreign exchange students. Thousands of students come to the U.S. as part of the exchange program, but because of a lack of oversight, the State Department failed to rigorously check the host family’s background. As a result, dozens of kids were abused, and the State Department has done little to address it. According to Jessica Vaughan, Director of Policy at the Center for Immigration Studies:

Through their mismanagement of the program, they essentially are looking the other way. They’re in denial about how much of it actually goes on. I’m ashamed as an American that the government agency that’s responsible for bringing them over under the auspices of [being] about cross-cultural understanding is exercising only token oversight to protect these kids.

The State Department defended the program:

State Department staffers told NBC News tht a fraction of one percent of high school foreign exchange students reported sexual harassment or abuse by a host parent for the 2010-2011 academic school year. The Department said it did not have such data in a central log of complaints until the fall of 2009.

The lack of a log of complaints essentially means no one bothered to track the abuse claims. That makes the State Department’s claim that only a fraction of students were abused ring hollow. How would anyone know how many students were hurt if no one kept track of the complaints?

More so, plenty of students may not come forward because of things like this:

Despite reforms, just this past Christmas a 16-year-old boy from Germany says he did not know what to do after he was allegedly sexually abused by his host father and did not know what to do. In an interview to be broadcast tonight on Rock Center, he said he did not know about the State Department’s 24/7 hotline.

His mother said when she spoke to the local coordinator by phone and asked her what she should do, the coordinator told her, “It’s up to you.” She quickly flew to the U.S. on her own dime to retrieve her son at her own expense. Three months later she and her son flew back to the U.S., again at their own expense, to file a police report.

In another story featured on the show, a young man abused by his host father reported the abuse only to have his host father allowed to sit in on the meeting with officials. Instead of kicking the host father out of the program, the young man was booted out for smoking marijuana. NBC later discovered a memo from one of the officials stating that they hoped the host father knew they had protected his “good reputation.”

Even Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s ordered review of the exchange programs found “insufficient oversight of the youth exchange programs at all levels.” The review also stated:

[…] communication among some staff “borders of unprofessional,” there was a “lack of human and financial resources,” and an “erroneous assumption” that the exchange organizations monitored themselves.

That makes the State Department’s recent decision all the more curious:

Despite dozens of allegations of neglect and sexual abuse over the years, the U.S. State Department has scrapped a plan to require FBI-based fingerprint searches for people hosting foreign high school exchange students, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The federal agency in recent years considered but dropped a plan to require FBI background checks similar to what’s used by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts because it wasn’t “feasible,” according to the State Department documents.

Considering some of the cases reported in the article, this plan is something the State Department should have approved. Look at the litany of moronic oversights: organized criminal groups arranging for participants to work in strip clubs, students living with convicted criminals because program coordinators lied about housing arrangements, students placed in roach-infested mobile homes, and students given little food and forced to babysit.

While most of the students do not have these kinds of horrible experiences, these situations are so egregious that one would think the State Department would do everything to prevent them. One must wonder whether the proposed plan was scrapped purely out of bureaucratic nonsense because there is no good reason not to perform background checks on host families and sponsors. Parents are trusting strangers with their children under the belief that the U.S. knows these families are safe. The very least the State Department should is actually justify that trust.

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2 thoughts on “State Department failed to protect foreign exchange students

  1. I mean, some expat laborers go through hell (plenty of nasty things that happen to Filipino and Pakistani workers in the Persian Gulf) but this kind of thing bothers me more for some reason.

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