State/OIG Report on ECA Program – Whew! What a relief that this is so boring to everyone!

Posted: 4:08  am EDT
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On October 24, 2009, the AP reported the following:

The State Department’s internal watchdog concludes in a new report that the nation’s student foreign exchange programs need better federal oversight, after a scandal in which students were placed in shoddy homes in Pennsylvania.

The State Department’s acting inspector general, Harold W. Geisel, said in the report that the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs had largely abdicated its responsibility to ensure the well-being of thousands of exchange students who come to the United States each year.

The day before, the acting State/ECA boss wrote an email to Cheryl Mills on the IG report press coverage:

Via foia.state.gov

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-04

Email in pdf here.

Maura Pally is the the Senior Vice President, Women and Youth Programs, and serves as Acting CEO a the Clinton Foundation.  Previously, she served as Acting Assistant and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). Prior to joining the U.S. Department of State, she also served as deputy counsel for Secretary Clinton’s first presidential campaign.

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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

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.

Update:
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