Foreign Exchange Students Report Abuse by Host Families

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March 13, 2012; Source: Rock Center with Brian Williams

The Committee for the Safety of Foreign Exchange Students (CSFES), an all-volunteer organization, was founded by a woman named Danielle Grijalva who became interested in the issue through a conversation with a French exchange student who explained what his host family was doing to him. Grijalva has been sued for defamation by exchange programs that claim she exaggerates the problem, but it was her good work that got the U.S. State Department to go after the Council for Educational Travel USA and the Aspect Foundation, which were playing fast and loose with foreign exchange student recruitment and placement.

The problem has hardly been solved despite Grijalva’s stalwart watchdog work and State’s regulatory oversight and enforcement. NBC News has uncovered instances of rape, sexual abuse, and other forms of harassment by foreign exchange host parents and a cover-up by an organization that arranges for foreign exchange student placements. The story started with an 18-year-old Belgian student who was placed with a family living in an Arkansas trailer home by the Educational Resource Development Trust (ERDT). Within a month of the boy’s arrival, the host family father began making sexual moves on him, offering him drugs, and showing him pornographic films. 

The boy reported the father to ERDT. Oddly, ERDT went on a campaign of protecting the father and the organization and vilifying the boy. A second instance with another boy placed with that same father (who, after the problems with the Belgian boy, was promoted to become a coordinator for several exchange students) was similarly mistreated and ERDT again responded by trying to sweep the allegations under the rug. Eventually, the guy was arrested and convicted of sexual assault, but no thanks to the ERDT executives (despite their statements to the contrary) which “circled the wagons” at every step in the process, blaming the victim each and every time.

And no thanks to the U.S. Department of State. Where was State? The State Department oversees some 80 organizations that pay a fee to be approved as foreign exchange student sponsoring agencies. ERDT is one. State actually credits ERDT with having helped draft the regulations that sponsoring agencies must follow. According to a State Department spokesperson, “They have been complying as we’ve strengthened the regulations with the improved standards, which is why we’ve kept them on our rolls. They themselves were horrified and victimized by this situation.”

State’s oversight of foreign exchange programs like ERDT was supposed to have been corrected in 2009 after its inspector general eviscerated the department following a series of incidents with foreign exchange programs. State’s blind defense of ERDT—hard to believe given the quotes from ERDT staff presented by NBC News—doesn’t hold water. NBC says it has found 14 additional organizations whose exchange students have alleged sexual abuse or harassment.

The issue isn’t just sexual abuse or physical danger faced by the exchange students. In other instances, the host families—who aren’t paid for hosting exchange students but sometimes get assistance with food and other expenses—have virtually starved kids during their U.S. sojourns. Earlier this month, Grijalva and CSFES revealed that exchange programs were confiscating the cell phones and laptops of exchange students so that, Grijalva charges, students cannot take pictures of the “deplorable” conditions they endure during their time with host families, or so the programs can erase photos that have already been taken. 

As nonprofits know, the IRS is not the only federal agency involved in nonprofit regulation and oversight. Often it is the agencies through which they receive funding, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education. Sometimes it is the Federal Trade Commission with its consumer protection mission. In the case of 80 officially approved foreign exchange student-sponsoring programs, the federal agency with the regulatory authority is the Department of State. It’s time for State to get off the stick and do something—and to resist being captured by the organizations it oversees and that it got to help write the regulations in the first place.—Rick Cohen

  • CSFES Volunteer

    Dear Mr. Cohen,

    Thank you for your fantastic article exposing the abuse of these children at the hands of many exchange agencies while the State Department stands on the sidelines, rocking back and forth on their heels, just waiting for the dust to settle.

    We look forward to hearing from you and will keep you on file to report any and all tips we believe will be of interest to NPQ.


    CSFES Volunteer (Proud)

  • Sally Smith

    As the host mother for several foreign exchange students, I learned that exchange student abuse is prevalent to include sexual abuse, forced childcare, forced housecleaners, domestic violence, etc. Year after year, Serra High School (San Diego Unified School District) in San Diego called me because an exchange student was in the counselor’s office crying and afraid to go back to the host family with which the student was placed. Germany, Thailand, Denmark – foreign teenager foreign exchange students being forced to provide childcare in Tierrasanta military housing so the mother would go to work; teenagers sleeping in garages of Tierrasanta military housing (you don’t mind if I put the cat out here with you , do you?) , a teenager sitting on the curb at midnight after the home was raided by Drug Enforcement and teenage foreign boy was not arrested because the police spoke with him and realized he was not involved in the drug dealing and allowed him to call and have somebody get him. Even now, San Diego Unified School teachers recruit host families for foreign teenagers without any screening whatsoever – just put the teenagers in anybody’s house that volunteers because they earn free trips and other prizes. This is a sexual predator’s dream!!
    Exchange agencies took thousands of dollars from students who could not speak English and brought them to USA and ended up at Madison High School – isolated, afraid, unable to participate and ashamed to go home after their parents spent thousands to send them to America. Since 2002, I have been aware of this abuse including J-1 exchange students coming in the summer as pedicab drivers and these students don’t have enough to eat, evicted from apartments. As an American, I am horrified that it is the U.S. Department of State that refuses to stop exchange student abuse and kowtows to the exchange industry, that the Foreign Relations Committee awards millions of dollars in grants (free tax money) to the exchange industry that exploits the foreign students who dream of visiting America. I have written to President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton year after year, only to see that the U.S. Department of State refused to implement fingerprint criminal background checks. Until fingerprint checks are mandatory the exchange student abuse will not abate. Responsible people understand the necessity of fingerprint background checks and it demonstrates a commitment to provide a safe home for a foreign mother’s beloved child. We, as Americans, owe at least that much to every foreign student that we invite to the US of A.

  • Rose

    It never ceases to amaze me how some people have no conscience but stive for that dollar at the rick of these children’s lives. I hope the young men and women that have crought a civil suit against one of these programs wins and this gets out and the public can see. All Americans do not treat their children in this manner. Shame on the ones who knew what was going on and let it be. The State Department knew and did nothing? WHat actually goes through people’s mingd when a serious allegation like this occurs? It has to be “No, this does not happen.”
    The point is now it is open and Thank you Brian Williams , keep up all of the good work you and your staff do! Opening up the outer shell so people are aware of the nastiness others can carry in their hearts. One thing I do want to say, most people are not like this and I hope these children can get on with their lives as best as they can. There is no amount of money that can give these children back what they have lost!!

  • John Young

    I think that host families should treat exchange students like theirs and count the fact that children come from the other country. Everything is new to them starting from the people surround they ending with culture and speaking habits of the region they now live in. Besides, they should get used to another education system and process of teaching. Sometimes it is so hard for them to do it that they refer to high quality custom essays to get assistance with their homework and college papers. We should be more attentive to them and make them feel like home.