Are Foreign Exchange Students Safe?

A Japanese girl's placement in the home of a convicted felon has raised demands for criminal background checks. Placement agencies counter the situation is being overblown.


By Caroline Aoyagi-Stom, Executive Editor


Published October 21, 2005


Should a convicted felon be allowed to host a foreign exchange student.


That's the resounding question after the Committee for the Safety of Foreign Exchange Students (CSFES), a California-based group, recently learned that a 16-year-old Japanese girl has been living in the St. Augustine, Florida home of a convicted felon since August. The committee is demanding her immediate removal.


But F.A.C.E. (Foundation for Academic Cultural Exchange), the organization in Gainsville, Florida that placed the Japanese girl, say they have not violated any guidelines and have since received permission from the girl's parents in Japan to continue her stay. And they have the approval of the U.S. State Department to back them up.


"What precedence does this set? It's not a healthy placement ... it's unconscionable," said Danielle Grijalva, director of CSFES, who recently founded the committee after observing questionable practices as a former area representative for a foreign exchange student placement organization. "I would not have had any of my students placed in the home of a convicted felon. I would not want to live in the home of a convicted felon."


But according to Stanley Colvin, U.S. State Department's director for the office of exchange coordination and designation, F.A.C.E. and its directors Richard and Beverly Moss, have not violated any guidelines and the Japanese girl will continue to stay with her host family.


"The student is still there at the request of the student's family, whom are fully apprised of all the facts," he said.

The issue of safety for foreign exchange students in the U.S. is at the forefront since the U.S. State Department recently came out with new proposed guidelines to enforce sex offense background checks for potential hosts. But CSFES and host parents like Sally Smith say the guidelines don't go far enough and are demanding full criminal background checks for potential hosts.


"Kids should not be used to rehabilitate adults who've made poor judgments," said Smith, an attorney from San Diego, Calif. who has hosted eight foreign exchange students over the years. "Criminal background checks are crucial for the protection of all children."
The proposed guidelines are currently being reviewed after a 60-day discussion period but even if approved, still would not have prevented the 16-year-old Japanese girl, who's identity has not been released, from being placed in the home of her host father. That's because the guidelines call for a background check for sex offenses only and the host father was convicted of burglary in 1994. He was eventually sentenced to 144 months, three years of which he spent in a Georgia prison. The man is currently on parole until July 2006.


The host father, 36, who resides with his wife and children, has also been charged and convicted with grand theft, possessing a short barrel gun, retail theft, eluding a police officer and reckless driving.


Even with his criminal record, this is not the first time the host father has opened his home to foreign exchange students. F.A.C.E. has acknowledged in various media reports that they have placed other foreign exchange students in the St. Augustine man's home and that Moss knew of the man's criminal record prior to the placements.


"The case has been dropped," said Richard Moss, when contacted by the Pacific Citizen. "My

side of the story seems to be changed every time I give it so I have no more comments," he said.


A main reason why the 16-year-old Japanese girl continues to stay with her host family is that both F.A.C.E. and the State Department say they have spoken with the girl and her parents since the complaints and they have no problems with the host father's prior criminal record.


"They are a bit worried but not that much," said Toshikazu Shimada, a spokesperson for the Consulate General of Japan's office in Miami, who has spoken to the student and her parents about the host father's criminal record. "The parents respect their daughter's decision," he said, noting that the daughter seems very happy to continue her stay.


"There's a lot of misinformation that's been thrown around [regarding the Japanese girl and F.A.C.E.," said John Hishmeh, executive director for CSIET (Council on Standards for International Educational Travel), a national non-profit that oversees more than 80 foreign exchange student program organizations. "Those that are directly involved all know and no one is still complaining except for the outsiders."


But for Grijalva, an at-home mom who has now officially filed a complaint with CSIET against F.A.C.E., that's not good enough. She questions why Moss did not inform the student and her parents of the host father's criminal conviction prior to the girl's arrival in the United States. She also wonders whether the girl is able to fully understand the situation since she speaks limited English.


"Can we please place her in another home? Exchange organizations have fabulous tactics and the language barrier is a tactic," said Grijalva, noting that many of the agencies require the students to hand over passports, visas, and their return flight tickets. "They take advantage of the students. They are intimidated to keep their mouths shut."


Smith also questions why F.A.C.E. did not originally tell the 16-year-old Japanese student and her parents she would be staying with a host father with a criminal record. "Would they have approved of a convicted felon before she was placed?" she wondered. "I also question what the company said to the parents. These kids are worried they are going to be sent home."


This year alone, more than 4,700 Japanese high school exchange students will visit the U.S. In total about 28,000 high school exchange students visit the U.S. each year. According to the U.S. State Department, the number of reported cases of abuse is very low, only five cases of alleged abuse in the past 10 years.


But proponents pushing for change believe the numbers are low because the students are afraid to report the abuse and lack the support of the various agencies, several of which are million dollar businesses. In fact, since Grijalva formed CSFES earlier this year, about ten cases of abuse have been forwarded to her and she receives regular correspondences from students thanking her for her efforts.


Smith has also had her share of concerns. In 2003 then 16-year-old Thai student Mary Vattanasiriporn had been attending the same high school as Smith's daughter Jessica. It was when Jessica informed Smith of Mary's horrible living conditions that Smith decided to take action and take Mary into her own home.


"She was living in a garage, sleeping on a sofa and it was freezing. The windows were covered with newspapers. Mary comes from a culture where you don't complain," said Smith. "This kid was really mistreated by AISE (American Intercultural Student Exchange)."


Eventually, Mary filed an official complaint with the U.S. State Department against AISE, the agency responsible for her placement, but have never had any action taken on her alleged complaints. Mary is currently back in her homeland attending college in Bangkok, Thailand.


Hishmeh and those in the foreign student exchange community believe the current concern of alleged abuse cases has been blown out of proportion although he believes foreign exchange students need to feel safe.


Some are "misrepresenting them as widespread occurrences," said Hishmeh of the alleged abuse cases. "But they are still significant and important."


"The problems are isolated," said Megan Allen, EF Foundation for Foreign Study's director of government and school relations. She would not comment on the Florida case saying she was not aware of all the facts but added, "We take student safety seriously."


CSIET and organizations like EF Foundation believe they are taking active steps in promoting safety for foreign exchange students by supporting the State Department's proposed guidelines. The CSIET board recently endorsed the proposals and plan to bring the issue before the 80 international youth exchange organizations they represent at their national convention this week.


But for Grijalva and Smith, they question why the State Department, CSIET, and the various foreign student exchange organizations are not joining them in their efforts to demand a full criminal background check for potential hosts.


"The State Department is crumbling under the pressure from the exchange community," said Smith. "They don't want to make the extra effort or to incur the minimum of expenses. It's too much trouble."


The industry "should be fine tuned for the safety of the students. We need to clean up our act to ensure the safety of our students," said Grijalva.


"Everyone wants to come to the U.S. It's a lifelong dream for many," she said. "I want them to leave with a positive experience."