2009-10-29 / Features

State Dept.: Exchange Programs Need Closer Watch

By Michael Rubinkam ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

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

Acting Inspector General Harold Geisel said in the report, released this week, that the department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs has largely abdicated its responsibility to ensure the well-being of thousands of exchange students who come to the United States each year.

Instead, the sponsoring organizations themselves have been left to monitor their own programs and self-report problems to federal regulators, the report said.

“There are insufficient dedicated resources at ECA to conduct effective oversight of youth exchange programs,’’ the report said.

The inspector general began its review in July, following allegations that an employee of a San Francisco-based exchange program placed students in filthy homes around Scranton in northeastern Pennsylvania. Edna Burgette was fired from Aspect Foundation after being charged in July with five felony counts of criminal negligence.

Aspect said it deplored Burgette’s actions and had no prior knowledge of the neglect, but the agency was penalized by the State Department.

“We’re absolutely committed to strengthening our programs, making them the best they can be and ensuring that all students have safe and rewarding experiences,’’ Maura Pally, acting assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, told The Associated Press on Friday.

In the wake of the Scranton case, the bureau added staff, established a separate unit to conduct site visits, e-mailed current students to inquire about how their experiences are going, and set up a database to track problems, among other fixes meant to improve oversight.

Also, proposed federal regulations would tighten requirements for host families and set up more rigorous background checks.

“We acknowledge there were serious problems with our monitoring and oversight, and we agree with the IG’s assessment that things needed to change,’’ Pally said. “The way things were operating was just not acceptable, and we began making changes even before the report was released.’’

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