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Student homes of horror

Claudia Civinini investigates alleged cases of abuse and neglect suffered by international students participating in US exchanges


DON'T OPEN THAT DOOR This photo and the two others show the accommodation of a student who paid $15,000 for her exchange 


A German who paid $300 a month to her host family. A Norwegian who was accommodated in a house of horrors. An Italian who was forced to apologise for wanting to change host family because her host mother allegedly had sex toys all over her house. What do they have in common? They were all foreign exchange secondary school students in the US, according to information provided to the Gazette, and like everyone who took part in this investigation, the victims prefer to remain anonymous.


Over 23,446 secondary school students from all over the world participated in an exchange programme in the United States in 2014 on a J-1 visa. This is a type of student visa overseen by the Department of State that allows students to study in a US high school for free for an academic year. Host families and schools cannot legally receive financial remuneration because ‘the J-1 Secondary School Student exchange program is a public diplomacy program intended to foster mutual education and trust’, according to the department’s website.

For the students, the adventure usually starts with an agency in their home country, legally required to work in partnership with a US not-for-profit organisation which acts as sponsor and coordinates the student’s placement. The sponsor is legally responsible for ‘carefully’ screening the host families, which includes a criminal background check. The host families need to provide ‘a bed, adequate storage space for clothes and personal belongings, reasonable access to bathroom facilities and study space if not otherwise available in the home, three quality meals a day and transportation to and from school activities’. Local coordinators appointed by the sponsoring organisation must monitor and assist students with any issues. Another responsibility of the sponsoring agencies is immediately to report incidents and allegations involving abuse and to inform students that they can access the State Department directly on an abuse hotline.

Unfortunately, although most students go back to their home country with beautiful memories, the department’s guidelines are sometimes disregarded.


Sexual abuse of international students in the US has often made headlines worldwide. In 2003 Frank Sidewski was convicted of abusing a Vietnamese foreign exchange student, and police found obscene photographs taken by the convicted man dating back thirty years in Sidewski’s house. In 2009 Paul Louis Stone was convicted of molestation. In 2013 the Gazette reported the case of Kevin Garfield Ricks, who was sentenced to twenty years in a Maryland court for abuse of a German student, added to a 25-year sentence the offender was already serving for abuse in Virginia. As mentioned on page 3, US host families have to undergo criminal record checks as of 2005. However, as the Ricks case shows, since sex offender registers are kept by individual states, abusers just have to cross state borders to avoid detection.

Sexual abuse, however, is not the most common concern. In 2012 the Norwegian newspaper Afterposten covered the case of a student placed in a disadvantaged and violent family, highlighting the fact that this situation is more common than the glossy exchange brochures would lead us to believe.


An Italian student in the US was hosted by a family that apparently didn’t register her presence and didn’t even notice the girl had developed an eating disorder, according to Gazette sources in Italy. The family flew to the US to take her home. One Italian mother told the Gazette she paid €13,000 for a J-1 exchange in 2013, and reported that the agency never mentioned the role played in the programme by the State Department – which should be contacted, as stated on its website, if a student’s concerns are not addressed by the sponsoring organisation. Yet another Italian student was hosted by a family who made her pay for all her food. She had to fly back to Italy for Christmas as ‘the family didn’t want her during that time’.

These stories highlight host families that were not carefully chosen, where students experienced a complete lack of interest and supervision, and lived in houses in the middle of nowhere or were given a ‘room’ in a basement. Potentially misleading advertising about exchange programmes was reported to the Italian Advertising Standards Agency, which had previously fined the same agency for the same reason.

We were also told of another Italian girl who developed an eating disorder while on an exchange and was forcibly repatriated. A search of agency application forms and disclaimers shows a high level of concern about eating disorders and made it clear that if a student develops an eating disorder they can be immediately repatriated.

While this decision cannot be faulted – it’s better not to delay treatment, and the natural family is surely better suited to look after the child – it sparks some questions. Clearly agencies are aware that, as many research papers mention (see Davis& Katzman, 1999 and Van Den Broucke & Vandereycken, 1986), ‘acculturation shock’ – and trauma – can provide a trigger for such disorders.

Is this being made clear enough to families, or is it getting lost in the general lack of transparency that appears to characterise the industry?