JACKSON, Miss. — Despite dozens of allegations of neglect and sexual abuse over the years, the U.S. State Department abandoned 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 are used by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts because it wasn't "feasible," according to the State Department documents.
The agency was taking a serious look at requiring the checks as far back as 2010 and identified a dozen private companies that are authorized to use the FBI's database, according to the documents. The State Department later settled on a pilot program with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but that ended in March 2011 because Congress didn't reauthorize the program and due to budget shortfalls.
The State Department didn't enact a different method to require the fingerprint checks that provide an in-depth, nationwide look at criminal records. The agency requires third-party companies that place students with host families to conduct background checks, but advocates say the system is problematic because it leaves the vetting in the hands of the companies. State and local background checks may miss some crimes, and an AP review found cases of students who ended up living with convicted criminals.
By not requiring the fingerprint checks, the government has sent the wrong message, especially at a time when cases of mistreatment and sexual abuse continue to surface, advocates said.
The Exchange Visitor Program brings close to 30,000 high school students to the United States each year. Foreign students live with a host family for a year and attend U.S. schools. It's supposed to be a learning experience for the students, but over the years, dozens of students have been abused, according to State Department records, advocates and court documents.
The agency received 43 allegations of sexual abuse since the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday.
"From the State Department's point of view and the Secretary of State's point of view, even one child abused under these programs is one child too many. That is why we've undertaken a number of reforms to strengthen the program," Toner said in an email.
In recent years, the agency has adopted several rules designed to safeguard students in the high school program, including requiring all sponsors to photograph the exterior of the house, the kitchen and student's bedroom. Host families also must provide outside character references – previously, family members and sponsors could be such references.
Yet other critical changes considered by the State Department didn't last, including the pilot program with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that would have used the FBI fingerprint checks.
"While FBI fingerprinting is the preferred approach for criminal background checks, doing so is not feasible at this time," an April 2011 State Department memo said.
Companies that sponsor students opposed the proposal to use the fingerprinting because they said "it could not be executed in a timely, cost effective or convenient manner," according to information published in the Federal Register.
Danielle Grijalalva, executive director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, said she has found dozens of cases of sexual abuse over the years and forwarded the complaints to the State Department. Yet the agency has done little to investigate them, she said.
"The State Department is watching exchange agencies like the Catholic Church watched its (pedophile) priests," she said.
Advocates place blame on the way the agency relies on designated sponsors – companies that facilitate the program by arranging places for the students to live – to perform background checks on host families.
Last year, the State Department took steps to sever its relationship with one sponsor after the company placed a student "with a host family whose criminal background check revealed a murder conviction," according to agency memos. One document from last year said a review by the State Department found that 15 of its 39 "largest fee-charging" sponsors were in "regulatory noncompliance," though it didn't say what rules were violated.
The agency asked the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of State for an independent review of its Youth Programs Division, and the OIG determined in September 2011 "that the Bureau had fully and satisfactorily responded to the recommendations and closed out the review," Toner said.
"The Department has made significant reforms and continues to pursue new ways in which we can safeguard international student exchange participants," he said.
Critics say more must be done.
Andrea Leavitt is a California attorney who represented four exchange students who said they were sexually abused in Arkansas. Doyle Meyer Jr. served four years of a six-year prison sentence in that case.
"There is a huge, glaring, gaping hole in the regulations in what must be done when there's an allegation of child abuse," Leavitt said.
That's because allegations of abuse aren't usually reported immediately to law enforcement or child protective services, she said.
"Most often we see the inclination by the foreign exchange sponsoring agency, camps, schools and churches is to bury it and discredit the kid," she said. "The cover-ups often result in more victims and escalation in the nature and severity of the abuse by the perpetrator."
Leavitt would like to see a federal law that requires officials, employees and agents of entities that are licensed by the government or receive financial benefits from the government to report an allegation to law enforcement before running it up the company's chain of command.
There should be a mandatory jail sentence and no plea bargains when people don't first report the matter to law enforcement by email or fax within 24 hours of hearing an allegation, she said.
"There's too much witness tampering, too much wagon circling by the entities to protect them from liability and penalties over the protection and best interests of the victims," she said.
The State Department's exchange programs have had problems in the past.
An earlier AP investigation found serious abuses in a program that allows foreign college students to live and work in the United States for up to four months. The problems in that cultural exchange, the J-1 Summer Work Travel program, included organized criminal groups arranging for participants to work in strip clubs. Others received little money for working long hours at menial jobs or were crammed into overcrowded apartments and charged exorbitant rent.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered a full review of that program last year and changes are being made.
Another measure would have prohibited single adults without a school-aged child living in the home from hosting exchange students.
Currently, sponsors are supposed to make sure host families undergo a background check – a rule that took effect in 2005. That doesn't always happen. Some of the state and local background checks don't tap into the national crime database and sometimes someone with a criminal background can escape detection, according to State Department records.
Exchange students also have ended up living with convicted criminals because program coordinators lie about housing arrangements. In one such case, Edna Burgette of Scranton, Pa., was sentenced to three months in jail on state charges in Pennsylvania and probation on federal charges in 2010 after working as an international coordinator for a program sponsor.
Federal court records said she lied about housing arrangements for five students and was paid a $400 fee and a $20-a-month stipend for each one. One of those students was sent to live in a house with a convicted drug felon and at least two others were sent to live with people who had no means to support them because they were on public assistance themselves, according to records in U.S. District Court in Scranton.
In Columbia, S.C., the AP found a case in which three exchange students – all teenage girls – were placed by the sponsor in roach-infested mobile homes.
Two of the girls were placed in the same South Carolina home with little food and with a single mother who forced them to babysit, according to Gina Barton, of West Columbia, S.C., who later allowed one of the girls to move in with her. Barton said they were denied bathing facilities at times and were permitted only rare phone calls to family in Poland, and then were instructed to say nothing about the living conditions.
One of the students took pictures of the house and sent them to her parents in Poland, who complained to the company that arranged the trip. It took weeks before that girl was removed by the sponsor and placed in another home, but the company left the other girl behind. Barton heard about the second girl's case and arranged for the student to move in with her.
No charges were ever filed in the case.
Barton said the student told her about a third girl who came over with her and was living in a mobile home where the host family was openly using drugs and threatening her. She was removed from "dangerous living conditions" – but only after she repeatedly complained to the company and the State Department, Barton said.
"We were shocked," she said.
The company that sponsored the trip has gone out of business, but has since resurfaced under another name, Barton said.
The State Department needs to conduct extensive background checks of not only host families, but of sponsors, she said.
"If they don't, they are constantly going to place the kids in harm's way," she said.