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Foreign Exchange Student Programs Run By State Department Slammed In Inspector General's Report

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- State Department programs that bring foreign exchange students to the United States to work or attend school require urgent attention because students are being put at risk for abuse, according to a report from the federal Inspector General's office.

That's because the State Department's programs are poorly run, according to the report. It said some programs need to be restructured and another federal agency – the Labor Department – may need to take over other programs.

IG spokesman Doug Welty said Monday that his agency has no power to force the State Department to make changes.

"That's where Congress comes in," he said.

The State Department said the report, released last week, will be a helpful tool as it improves programs in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

"We are reviewing all of the recommendations in the report with a critical eye towards how we can improve and have already made significant progress on many of them," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in an email. "We recognize that there are major issues that must be addressed."

The agency has taken measures to reform the bureau's operations and its programs, Toner said.

"We have zero tolerance for abuse or mistreatment of exchange program participants, nor for misconduct by sponsor organizations or host families. We are committed to keeping international exchange program participants safe during their time in the United States," he said.

It's the latest in a series of problems that have plagued the State Department student exchange programs.

The Associated Press previously reported the State Department last year abandoned a plan to require FBI-based fingerprint searches for people hosting foreign high school exchange students – even though the agency received dozens of complaints from students who said they were sexually and physically abused in recent years.

An earlier AP investigation found serious abuses in the program that allows foreign college students to live and work in the United States for up to four months. The problems in that program, known as J-1 Summer Work Travel, 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.

Part of the IG report focused on problems in that program, which attracts tens of thousands of participants a year. Sponsors recruit teenagers and young adults from all over the world. The report recommended strictly limiting the program "until it can provide proper oversight."

The program suffers from overexpansion, poor supervision and weak compliance regulations, according to the report, which blames the State Department for poorly monitoring unscrupulous sponsors.

"Many visitors are young persons of secondary school or college age, whose safety and well-being are of paramount importance," said the report, which added it is imperative the educational and cultural affairs bureau holds sponsors to the highest standards.

Yet that's not happening, the report said.

For example, 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 IG report said that with a faltering economy, sponsors were finding it hard to find host families. Instead of limiting the number of students, sponsors just lowered their standards of who to select, the report said.

That's led to serious problems.

"Students reported host family requests that they provide daycare, do housework, perform farm labor or work in host family-owned businesses. Some students had insufficient food and lived in squalor," the report said.

Others were sexually abused. The State Department received 118 complaints of sexual abuse since 2010 school year, the report said.

The report found that sponsors had not always completed required annual criminal background check on host families, resulting in "teens being placed in homes with sex offenders and other felons."

Danielle Grijalalva, executive director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, said the IG report didn't surprise her. Her agency has found dozens of cases of sexual abuse over the years and forwarded the complaints to the State Department.

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Holbrook Mohr contributed to the story in Jackson, Miss.

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