Andrea Leavitt is a California attorney who represented four exchange students who said they were sexually abused in Arkansas. Doyle Meyer Jr. served four years of a six-year prison sentence in that case.
“There is a huge, glaring, gaping hole in the regulations in what must be done when there’s an allegation of child abuse,” Leavitt said.
That’s because allegations of abuse aren’t usually reported immediately to law enforcement or child protective services, she said.
“Most often we see the inclination by the foreign exchange sponsoring agency, camps, schools and churches is to bury it and discredit the kid,” she said. “The cover-ups often result in more victims and escalation in the nature and severity of the abuse by the perpetrator.”
Leavitt would like to see a federal law that requires officials, employees and agents of entities that are licensed by the government or receive financial benefits from the government to report an allegation to law enforcement before running it up the company’s chain of command.
There should be a mandatory jail sentence and no plea bargains when people don’t first report the matter to law enforcement by email or fax within 24 hours of hearing an allegation, she said.
“There’s too much witness tampering, too much wagon circling by the entities to protect them from liability and penalties over the protection and best interests of the victims,” she said.
The State Department’s exchange programs have had problems in the past.
An earlier AP investigation found serious abuses in a program that allows foreign college students to live and work in the United States for up to four months. The problems in that cultural exchange, the J-1 Summer Work Travel program, included organized criminal groups arranging for participants to work in strip clubs. Others received little money for working long hours at menial jobs or were crammed into overcrowded apartments and charged exorbitant rent.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered a full review of that program last year and changes are being made.
Another measure would have prohibited single adults without a school-aged child living in the home from hosting exchange students.
Currently, sponsors are supposed to make sure host families undergo a background check — a rule that took effect in 2005. That doesn’t always happen. Some of the state and local background checks don’t tap into the national crime database and sometimes someone with a criminal background can escape detection, according to State Department records.
Exchange students also have ended up living with convicted criminals because program coordinators lie about housing arrangements. In one such case, Edna Burgette of Scranton, Pa., was sentenced to three months in jail on state charges in Pennsylvania and probation on federal charges in 2010 after working as an international coordinator for a program sponsor.
Federal court records said she lied about housing arrangements for five students and was paid a $400 fee and a $20-a-month stipend for each one. One of those students was sent to live in a house with a convicted drug felon and at least two others were sent to live with people who had no means to support them because they were on public assistance themselves, according to records in U.S. District Court in Scranton.
In Columbia, S.C., the AP found a case in which three exchange students — all teenage girls — were placed by the sponsor in roach-infested mobile homes.