WASHINGTON, DC- U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asia Affairs, today sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to investigate the Department of State’s oversight of U.S. youth exchange programs following reports of abuse and mistreatment of nine foreign exchange students in Pennsylvania.
“The situation these students found themselves in is simply unacceptable,” said Senator Casey. “Education and Cultural Exchange Programs serve a valuable function. They provide a powerful mechanism by which negative perceptions of America can be refuted and stronger ties between nations can be forged. Therefore, I encourage the State Department to swiftly review its oversight procedures. We must be able to guarantee the safety and welfare of visiting students.”
Nine foreign exchange students between the ages of 15 and 18 have been placed in the care of Lackawanna County’s Department of Human Services. According to officials, some children were in need of medical attention due to malnutrition and dehydration while others were living in unsanitary conditions and in homes that were recently condemned. Only after their teachers voiced concerns did their predicaments come to light. Currently, foreign exchange students are eligible to attend approximately 430 high schools, colleges and universities throughout Pennsylvania.
Full text of the letter is below.
Dear Secretary Clinton,
I am writing you today out of concern for foreign exchange students who were placed in unsanitary homes in Pennsylvania and what it means for the welfare of our nation’s youth exchange programs. It has recently come to my attention that nine foreign exchange students between the ages of 15 and 18 are now in the care of the Department of Human Services in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania because they were placed with unsuitable host families. According to Lackawanna County officials, some children were in need of medical attention due to malnutrition and dehydration while others were living in unsanitary conditions and in a home recently condemned.
The stories from these children are disturbing. One story was of a 15 year-old girl from Nigeria who was living in a house surrounded by dog feces. According to news reports, this exchange student was living with the Area Coordinator of the sponsoring organization, the same person responsible for ensuring that other host families were living up to their obligations. The investigative reporter visited the house and confirmed the exchange student’s allegations and found dirt and feces throughout the house. The situation this student found herself in is simply unacceptable.
It is my understanding that both the Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), under the Department of Homeland Security, share responsibility for overseeing and implementing youth exchange programs. Through an independent third party – the Council on Standards for International Education Travel – the State Department provides accreditation and audits for private and non-profit international educational travel and youth exchange programs (also referred to as sponsors) on an annual basis. The USCIS Student and Exchange Visitor Program is responsible for tracking and monitoring foreign exchange students, schools and programs as long as they reside in America. When allegations of abuse arise, according to the secondary school student guidelines issued by the State Department, it is the sponsor’s responsibility to report and notify the incidents directly to the Department of State.
I am concerned that the current oversight system is reactive not proactive and permits the ongoing abuse of foreign students without any effective intervention until the situation is dire. The situation these students found themselves in only came to attention once teachers voiced their concerns. Therefore, I request answers to the following questions:
• The Council on Standards for International Education Travel (CSIET) is the independent nonprofit organization that reviews sponsors on an annual basis and provides a public list of those who have received accreditation. How does the Department of State determine whether the audits performed by CSIET meet agency regulations? How often, if at all, does the Department of State perform checks on the various sponsors approved by CSIET?
• Sponsors are required to “exercise due diligence” to ensure that the host families are screened properly and are found satisfactory. The Department of State has previously stated that “a mere superficial compliance with this regulatory requirement will not be tolerated.” If it is determined that an approved sponsor has failed to demonstrate due diligence in their host family selection process, what are the consequences for that sponsor?
• How much contact, if any, does the State Department have with sponsors? With CSIET?
• Are sponsors required to make home visits with students and their host families? If so, how many times must a sponsor visit the home during a student’s stay?
• If a sponsor loses its accreditation, is the sponsor allowed to reapply for accreditation the following year, if at all? If so, what steps must a sponsor take to have its accreditation restored?
• How many Department of State employees work on youth exchange programs?
I am supportive of the cultural and educational exchange programs the Department of State promotes and funds. Such exchange opportunities assist in dispelling negative images of the United States and helps convey our nation’s best attributes. It is for these reasons that I am deeply concerned about allegations of abuse and mistreatment of foreign exchange students. Stories like those emanating from Lackawanna County tarnish our reputation and undermine the mission of youth exchange programs. I look forward to hearing your responses and working with you on guaranteeing the safety and welfare of foreign exchange students in the United States.
Robert P. Casey, Jr.