State Dept’s Exchange Visitor Program: “Watching Them Like a Hawk?”

MSNBC’s Rock Center is running a segment tonight on foreign exchange students sexually abused in youth programs overseen by the State Department. Below is a 4:25 minute teaser:

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According to the AP, citing State Department spokesman Mark Toner, the department received 43 allegations of sexual abuse since the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.

Furthermore, AP quotes from Mr. Toner’s email:

“From the State Department’s point of view and the Secretary of State’s point of view, even one child abused under these programs is one child too many. That is why we’ve undertaken a number of reforms to strengthen the program.”

The AP piece also cited Danielle Grijalalva, executive director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, who said she has found dozens of cases of sexual abuse over the years and forwarded the complaints to the State Department. Yet the agency has done little to investigate them. Ms. Grijalalva said:

“The State Department is watching exchange agencies like the Catholic Church watched its (pedophile) priests.”

Ouchy! That’s not/not a public diplomacy win.

In 2009 in the wake of another foreign exchange blowup in the press, State’s Inspector General Office did a limited review at the request of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the Acting Assistant Secretary of ECA to “deter­mine the level of the Department’s oversight of secondary school exchange pro­grams.” The OIG says that the purpose of that review was to assess monitoring procedures within ECA and their effectiveness as oversight tools.

Its Recommendation 4 at that time says:

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs should es­tablish a standard requirement based on objective criteria to conduct national criminal history checks of host families to ensure uniformity and adequacy of information provided by third-party background check companies. (Action: ECA)

Apparently, the pilot use of FBI fingerprint checks had been ditched due Congress’ inability to provide appropriate funding and to budget shortfalls.

The 2009 OIG report was not the first one conducted on this subject. The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in February 1990, United States Information Agency: Inappropriate uses of Educational and Cultural Visas1, reported problems with program monitoring and oversight. The Department’s OIG audit in September 2000,2 found that the Office of Exchange Visitor Programs was unable to effectively monitor and over­see the exchange visitor program primarily because of inadequate resources. Finally, the 2006 GAO report to the Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security, and Claims, Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives3 found that State had “not exerted sufficient management oversight…and has been slow to address pro­gram deficiencies.”

Can you imagine if American kids on foreign exchange were abused overseas? As much as I’d like to point at Congress for not providing appropriate resources here, the State Department also does not have a track record of oversight that goes back at least a decade. The latest OIG report on this subject is dated 2009. The 43 allegations of sexual abuse occurred since the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year. So whatever reforms were made to strengthen the program from October 2009 onwards did not do a whole lot.

That’s one plus 42 allegations too many. As for watching them like a hawk, sorry Toria, probably not the best way to put it – makes one think the hawks were asleep through this.

Clarification from State’s spokesperson when asked about the AP story during today’s DPB:

MS. NULAND: Yeah. This was an AP story that was incorrect today. And as you know, we have called your reporter and asked for a correction. It asserted that there was an opportunity to give FBI background checks to American host families before foreign students came and stayed in their homes.

In fact, we would need legislation in order to make use of the FBI’s database for this purpose. We had a small pilot program* that the Congress had authorized that allowed us to do this for a short period of time. That program has now lapsed, and we would need new legislation in order to make use of it.

But that doesn’t change the fact that we do do criminal background checks on every single American host family on anybody over 18 who’s living in a household where a foreign student is going to be placed, and we obviously follow up with home visits, et cetera.

*The pilot program was under the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Okay, this clarification makes it even more confusing.  If “we do do criminal background checks on every single American host family on anybody over 18 who’s living in a household where a foreign student is going to be placed, and we obviously follow up with home visits,” that obviously is good.  But, but …. how did we end up with 43 sexual allegation cases in one school year?

Domani Spero

Related item:
OIG Report No. ISP-I-10-16 – Management Review of Youth Programs, Bureau of ECA – October 2009

3 responses

  1. Pingback: State/OIG: Bureau Overseeing Youth Exchange Program “Exaggerated” On-Site Review Results and Compliance | Diplopundit

  2. How truly horrific! It gets me upset to think of all those family members working hard and spending so much to give their kids a chance to fly to america and better themselve,s and those kids being hopefull and daydreamy with the opportunity only to find that they have essentially been sold into a sex-slave trade…courtesy of the U.S. State Department.

    Does it make you rethink what untenured snarks in london should be saying on their paperwork? “[I] spoke civilly to child molesters, murderers, drug peddlers, spouse abusers and other human scum without losing my sense of self worth.”

  3. Pingback: John Brown's Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review: March 15 | The Best Background Checking Blog