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