Abuse Reports Prompt Scrutiny of Foreign Exchange Host Families
May 5, 2006

Columbia, Mo. - Teachers, coaches and other volunteers know that working with children first requires a criminal background check to ferret out potential abusers. Now, so will the families who host the nearly 30,000 foreign exchange students who arrive in this country each year.

Under new rules adopted by the State Department Thursday in response to several recent high-profile cases of abuse by host parents, exchange students will also receive information on how to identify and report sexual abuse.

Host families say the change may make some parents think twice about going through background checks for the privilege of hosting foreign youngsters.

"I think they're trying too hard," said Ruth Ingram of Columbia, Mo., who has hosted exchange students from New Zealand and Finland with her late husband, forming such close bonds that the former students were named in her husband's obituary.

The extent of the abuse problem is difficult the gauge, but many in the industry concede such checks are necessary. "It's a sign of the times," said John Hishmeh, executive director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, an industry accreditation group. "We have to do it, and it makes sense."

The acting director of the State Department's Office of Exchange Coordination and Designation said last year it had received only five reports of abuse.

But a former exchange program coordinator in southern California who led the effort to lobby the federal government to make changes suggested the problem is far greater, with many cases of abuse going unreported due to language barriers, cultural differences and fears by students that reporting abuse could jeopardize their student visas.

Since forming the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students two years ago to expose what she called "the dirty little secret of the student exchange industry," Danielle Grijalva, a stay-at-home mother of three in Oceanside, Calif., said the group has received more than 50 reports of sex abuse of foreign exchange students in the United States.

"Way too many children were leaving the United States with horrible impressions," she said.

In Gaithersburg, Md., a high school biology teacher was convicted last year on two counts of sexual assault involving a 17-year-old German girl who lived in his home.

In Berea, Ky., a 55-year-old man pleaded guilty in April to sodomizing a 15-year-old female exchange student from Taiwan whom his family hosted. In Cleveland, a 71-year-old Ohio man was sentenced in 2003 to 2-1/2 years behind bars for several sex offenses involving a 17-year-old male Vietnamese exchange student whom he hosted.

And in LaBelle, Fla., a retired Roman Catholic priest who also worked as an exchange program coordinator continued to host foreign high school students on his own after two programs cut ties with him in 2002 after learning of multiple sex abuse investigations.

Accusations against ex-priest William Romero ultimately led to several monetary settlements from civil lawsuits filed by his victims.

Hishmeh said his group has adopted several screening requirements that go beyond the new federal measures, including a stipulation that criminal background checks cover all 50 states. The new federal rule does not specify the scope of such reviews, which could be interpreted by some sponsoring groups as meaning only a check of criminal records in their state of residence.

"If we're going to do this, we're going to do this properly," he said.

The new rules require sponsor organizations that become aware of abuse incidents or allegations to immediately notify the State Department as well as local law enforcement agencies. Failure to do so can jeopardize the organization's federal certification.

Hishmeh added that most exchange programs, while concerned about the added costs of implementing background checks in time for the fall arrival of a new crop of students, embrace the added scrutiny.

But that's not the case for the United Students Association of Mansfield, Texas, where executive director Moacir Rodrigues said the new regulations will make it even harder to recruit host families.

"They're willing to share their lives, share their homes," he said. "Some people are going to get offended and not have anything to do with it. It's too much trouble."


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