Aaron Voeks speaks to activist Danielle Grijalva about how US law can leave children on foreign exchange programmes vulnerable to predators
Up to 30,000 foreign high school students come to the US each year through the Exchange Visitor Program, according to USA Today, many of them staying with host families. Organisations that sponsor students coming into the US through this programme must be accredited by the US State Department, but there have been many cases of abuse by host parents against children staying with them.
One of the leading campaigns reporting on host family abuse has been the California-based Center for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students (CSFES), founded by former host family organiser Danielle Grijalva. ‘I know of cases where students are granted a US scholarship to study abroad and end up placed in homes that are in deplorable conditions. There’s barely enough food in the home to feed the family, let alone an exchange student,’ Danielle reveals, highlighting the problem with the US government policy of unpaid host families.
While many students come to the US and have positive experiences, cases of neglect and abuse from host families are reported every year. Students who speak up about it can still remain without help. ‘Often they are told that they are being fussy or homesick, or have an inability to adjust,’ Danielle insists.
The problem may lie with the relationship between foreign language travel agencies and the sponsoring organisations in the US. The US sponsors are responsible for finding suitable host families for exchange students, but they may fail to identify risk.
Local coordinators are paid a stipend for every student they are able to place, so it is in their interests to place as many students as possible. They often take on too many, and have to scramble to find homes for them all to live in.
Foreign agencies cannot run background checks on potential host families, leaving the US sponsor organisations, which may be sister companies, to do this.
Fingerprinting is excluded from these background checks, which allows more cunning abusers to slip through the net. In the US a sex offender is only registered in the state in which the crime was committed. If the offender moves to a different state, they can still pass the partial background check done on host families. Only a full check including fingerprinting would expose them, Danielle explains.
In April 2013 the Gazette reported on host father and serial sex abuser Kevin Garfield Ricks, who evaded the authorities in this way and carried out abuse against foreign exchange students between 1978 and 2010.
Unfortunately most parents sending their children abroad are unaware of this loophole in the regulations, and simply pay large sums of money to agencies while trusting that their children will be kept safe. ‘The agencies tell the parents almost anything they want to hear,’ says Danielle. ‘They say they are running a full background check but they’re not.’
One of the biggest problems, according to Danielle, is that when students arrive in the US they are often made to sign a ‘code of conduct’ stating that, should any problems arise with their host families, they must contact their local coordinator and, crucially, no one else. And when students do complain, they are often ignored. Placement coordinators might not wish to admit they have made a mistake because they don’t want to risk tarnishing their organisation’s reputation.
For these reasons and more Danielle started CSFES. She states her goal is to ‘educate parents, students and administrators before they even leave their home country’.
Despite the problems that still exist, Danielle says she wouldn’t want students to be scared off studying in the US. ‘Cultural change is phenomenal and life changing,’ she says. However parents must be aware that dangers do exist, and so should be careful when selecting a placement agency for their child’s trip.
Danielle suggests that parents find out if prospective families have hosted before and been vetted properly, and if the agent placing their child has a manageable number of students.
With the proper preparation and information, there is no reason to believe that a student’s experience abroad won’t be everything they are hoping for.