State/OIG: Bureau Overseeing Youth Exchange Program “Exaggerated” On-Site Review Results and Compliance

The same day that MSNBC’s Rock Center aired allegations that exchange students were sexually abused in youth programs overseen by the State Department, it also ran a companion piece featuring the State Department’s official spokesperson, Toria Nuland defending the foreign exchange program (see Critics blame State Department for turning a blind eye on sex abuse).

Quick excerpt below:

The State Department defends the high school exchange program, and maintains that the vast majority of the 200,000 students who have come to America over the past decade have had an overwhelmingly positive experience.

“These kids have an enormously gratifying, rich, fantastic American experience that lasts with them for a lifetime,” said State Department Spokesperson Toria Nuland.

State Department staffers told NBC News that a fraction of one percent of high school foreign exchange students reported sexual harassment or abuse by a host parent for the 2010-2011 academic school year.

The very next day after the MSNBC report aired, the Office of the Inspector General finally released its much awaited review of the  Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) who has oversight over this program and multiple other programs, from Fulbright to the Summer Work Training (SWT) program.

Here is a quick summary of what the IG says about the program for secondary school students:

  • From January 2010 through October 2011, ECA received allegations related to sexual abuse or sexual harassment of 118 participants in the secondary school student program.
  • The first-ever systematic on-site reviews found that 15 of the 39 sponsors did not comply with regulations.
  • The consequences?  Minimal sanction, a letter of reprimand, to 11 sponsors; there was no reduction in their level of authorized activity.
  • More serious consequences? 2 sponsors faced reduction of allocation and 2 organizations were terminated from the secondary school student program. (The terminated sponsors had placed students in the home of the same convicted murderer.)
  • The results?  These actions had the effect of reducing the secondary school student program by only 2 percent.
  • In spite of the limited impact of the on-site reviews, the OIG team noted that ECA/EC front office staff exaggerated the results in communications with senior Department officials, overstating the extent of both the program sanctions and ECA’s compliance activity.

So when the Rock Center report says this:

The Department dropped a number of organizations that previously were approved to place students with families and implemented new regulations meant to more thoroughly check out host families.

Number of organizations dropped actually equals to 2 based on the OIG report. And when they talk about background checks:

“We do training for the staff, we work with them on implementing the regulations.  We insist that they document now these home visits, these background checks…there is a 24/7 hotline the students can call if they encounter a problem with the host family,” Nuland said.

The OIG says “The regulations do not dictate, however, the type of criminal background check, and sponsors generally use private databases to fulfill the requirement. Because a number of states do not allow criminal information to be stored in these private databases, significant risk remains that students may be placed in homes with criminals.”

And that most probably is how we end up with 43 118 allegations related to the sexual abuse or sexual harassment of exchange students. Below excerpted from the report:

Secondary School Students

In 2009, a scandal involving the placement of secondary school students in Scranton, Pennsylvania, called into question the adequacy of ECA oversight of the 92 sponsors dealing with this vulnerable population. In 2010, for the first time, ECA embarked on systematic on-site reviews of the largest program sponsors responsible for the well-being of thousands of teenagers placed with host families nationwide. ECA sent teams comprising members of its Compliance, Youth Programs, and Grants staff to review the operations of the 39 largest sponsors, collectively responsible for 72 percent of secondary school student participants.

The on-site review teams found that many sponsors inadequately maintained SEVIS records, thereby thwarting the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to fulfill its national security mandate of tracking the whereabouts of all J visa holders in the United States. Sponsors had not always completed the required annual criminal background checks on host families, resulting in teens being placed in homes with sex offenders and other felons. Given the challenges of the economy, sponsors were finding it difficult to attract host families. Rather than limit the number of students brought to the United States, some sponsors lowered standards. Students reported host family requests that they provide day care, do housework, perform farm labor, or work in host family-owned businesses. Some students had insufficient food and lived in squalor. From January 2010 through October 2011, ECA received allegations related to sexual abuse or sexual harassment of 118 participants in the secondary school student program.

Recommendation 38: The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs should establish a process to refer credible allegations of criminal activity to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the Office of Inspector General’s Office of Investigations, or to an appropriate law enforcement organization. (Action: ECA)

Although in early 2009 EC established a Joint Review Committee involving three senior EC managers to consider sanctions against program sponsors, when the high school review results came in, EC decided to convene an “ad hoc evaluation review committee” to provide an independent review of the results and recommend appropriate remedial action where needed. It is unclear why the established review body, which included staff familiar with both the regulatory requirements and day-to-day operations of the program, was bypassed. The OIG team was told that EC thought this ad hoc group “could better withstand external scrutiny.”

These first-ever systematic on-site reviews also found that 15 of the 39 sponsors did not comply with regulations. Section 502(a) of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 states that material failure to comply with record keeping and reporting requirements shall “result in the suspension for at least one year or termination…at the election of the Secretary of State, of the…entity’s designation to sponsor exchange visitor program participants.” Despite this, the ad hoc evaluation review committee gave only the minimal sanction, a letter of reprimand, to 11 sponsors; there was no reduction in their level of authorized activity. ECA reduced the DS-2019 allocations for 2 sponsors by a collective total of 310 forms and terminated from the secondary school student program 2 organizations with a combined allocation of 277 DS-2019 forms. (The terminated sponsors had placed students in the home of the same convicted murderer.) These actions had the effect of reducing the secondary school student program by only 2 percent. In spite of the limited impact of the on-site reviews, the OIG team noted that ECA/EC front office staff exaggerated the results in communications with senior Department officials, overstating the extent of both the program sanctions and ECA’s compliance activity.

The acting DAS recognizes that the creation of a system for ECA to check prospective host family names against a database of past incidents and complaints will better ensure that secondary school students are not placed with families unfit to host students. He convened discussions with his staff, the Youth Programs division in ECA’s Office of Citizen Exchanges, and the Office of the Legal Adviser. They agreed to implement a pilot program to cross-check the names of host families of all ECA-funded secondary school exchanges and aim to cross-check all host families in the future. ECA might also consider cross-checking sponsors and their local representatives.

The secondary school student program regulations require annual criminal background checks on all adult members of a host family. The regulations do not dictate, however, the type of criminal background check, and sponsors generally use private databases to fulfill the requirement. Because a number of states do not allow criminal information to be stored in these private databases, significant risk remains that students may be placed in homes with criminals. EC and the Office of the Legal Adviser are considering the role that law enforcement agencies may play with regard to checking host family names and criminal history as well as other mechanisms for improved screening of host families.

Recommendation 39: The Office of the Legal Adviser, in coordination with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, should determine whether host family names can be checked against law enforcement databases and, if so, develop a procedure for such checks. (Action: L, in coordination with ECA and DS)

Elsewhere in the report is this item:

Weak Regulations Undermine Oversight
Weak regulations make responsible management of ECA’s numerous programs difficult. Even limited sanctioning of inadequate sponsor performance requires a time-consuming, multistep exercise that rarely results in meaningful consequences for a delinquent sponsor. When EC staff members have recommended higher level sanctions, they have often been overruled. Since 2006, ECA has imposed a total of 21 sanctions that led to termination or a reduction in the number of authorized DS-2019 forms for reasons other than insufficient program activity (5 participants per year). Some organizations that placed secondary school students in homes with convicted felons continued for extended periods to operate as designated sponsors. Current multilayered regulatory requirements render swift and meaningful sanctions impossible: more than a year elapsed between ECA’s discovery that one sponsor had for years been placing high school students with a convicted murderer and ECA’s termination of the sponsor’s designation.

So what happens days after tomorrow? Another on-site reviews? More reduction of allocation, another couple of organizations terminated from the program?  I don’t know, but it seems to me that when the Department says that “even one child abused under these programs is one child too many” — it should manifest that talk into action and suspend this program until stronger regulations and oversight are in place.

Of course, this might not be all of it.  One line sticks out from the OIG report:

“Several observers commented that other programs have serious unaddressed issues about which the public is currently unaware.”

Pray tell, who’s going to make the public aware of these issues?

Domani Spero

Related item

Inspection of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA)| Report Number ISP-I-12-15, February 2012

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Filed under Disasters, Functional Bureaus, Govt Reports/Documents, Hall of Shame, Public Diplomacy, State Department

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