A spate of highly publicized cases in which foreign exchange students were sexually abused by their host parents in the United States has drawn fire on the U.S. State Department’s regulations for host families, and the department is toughening up its prerequisites. Costa Rica, on the other hand, does not officially regulate its exchange programs at all, although authorities say no similar cases have been reported here to date.“Students have come here (to the United States) and they have been raped and molested and forced to keep quiet about it,” Danielle Grijalva, director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, told The Tico Times.Over the last year and a half, she has collected the stories of 33 foreign students living in the United States who said they were raped or abused by members of their host families. The U.S. State Department, which has had a tumultuous correspondence with Grijalva, acknowledges five reported cases of sex abuse in the last 10 years.STANLEY Colvin, who heads the U.S. State Department’s exchange program regulatory section, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said it is important to note that the problem is not widespread – those are only a few cases among the 250,000 exchange students who visited the United States over the last 10 years.This year, 42 Costa Rican students began exchange programs in the United States; there are no known reports of abuse against any Costa Ricans to date. Grijalva’s committee maintains a Web site (www.csfes.org) featuring links to reports in major U.S. media and international publications that detail some of the abuse against exchange students. She also maintains a file of headlines dating from this year back to the late 1990s of rapes, beatings, convictions and damages paid. Those prosecuted this year include a host father who secretly filmed a 16-year-old German student living in his home while she was in her bedroom, and an exchange program coordinator charged for the rapes of three male European students over the last year.GRIJALVA is now engaged in a dispute with the State Department over the case of a 16-year-old Japanese girl who is living with a host family in which the father is on parole for a 1994 burglary conviction. The student’s parents were notified, but not until after she was placed with the family. They gave permission for her to continue living there, which satisfied Colvin, but Grijalva said it should have been handled differently and the girl could still be in danger.Criminal background checks are not mandatory for potential U.S. host families, and the proposed regulation changes do not require them. Rather, they require crosschecks against sex-offender registries, if there is such a registry in the host family’s state. They also require exchange-program companies to report complaints of sexual misconduct with the U.S. State Department, something they have not had to do in the past.Colvin said the rules are now open to public comment and suggestions will be considered. However, he added, none of the five sex abuse cases acknowledged by the State Department would have been averted with a background check, since none of the offenders had a criminal history.Grijalva said the checks would be a deterrent to pedophiles. “I would like a background check on the family before the student sets sail, and a second one three months after they arrive. Sometimes things aren’t caught at the time of the initial background check,” she said.A handful of exchange-program companies operate in Costa Rica. Only one of those consulted said it conducts background checks on its U.S. host families – the American Field Service (AFS), which has sent 27 students to the United States this year. Others consulted said they screen families through reference checks, personal interviews and visits to their homes, but not background checks.John Hishmeh, executive director of the U.S.-based Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, told The Tico Times the council’s response to the new regulations are under an in-house review and will be made public next week. He did not say whether he supports making background checks mandatory, but he said, “We proposed additional safeguards.” At the U.S. State Department’s request, the nonprofit council was formed to help monitor the industry and endorse student exchange companies.HISHMEH is dismayed at what he says is the “mischaracterization” of both how prevalent the sex abuse is and the reaction of the exchange programs. The sex abuse cases are “horrendous, and of course they’re going to get attention and rightly so,” he said, but it’s important to bear in mind that “these are agencies that believe in what they’re doing, and nobody wants to have pedophiles in their programs. Let’s get that off the table.”The fact that these issues are in the spotlight now, he said, is “a sign of the times,” comparable to the house-cleaning in the Catholic Church following sex abuse scandals involving priests, and in the Boy Scouts, for example.“Stuff happens, I’m sure it does, it’s not foolproof, but we do have several levels of screening. There isn’t a rampant problem, that host parents in the U.S. are pedophiles – and it’s not like there’s no screening at all,” he said.NOT so in Costa Rica. In spite of the bad publicity, the United States, with its government and nonprofit watchdogs, is two steps ahead of this country, which apparently does not regulate its exchange programs at all.Three government departments consulted – the Children’s Welfare Office (PANI), the Public Education Ministry and the Foreign Ministry – denied responsibility for such oversight, and none knew which branch of government would regulate the industry. AFS spokesman Raúl Montero said he is not aware of such a regulatory authority over his business. Also, he added, a bureaucratic legal morass makes conducting background checks on Costa Rican host families impractical. AFS screens families here through reference checks and interviews that can include neighbors and co-workers.Immigration reports 736 foreigners living in Costa Rica with student visas, many of whom are living with host families. Francisco Ruiz, communications chief for the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), said there has never been a report of sex abuse against a host family here.While no reports are on file in Costa Rica, they have surfaced around the world, not just in the United States. Chris Gould, a British police superintendent, began investigating this breed of sex abuse in 1998 and, within a year, had discovered 2,000 cases worldwide. Less than one percent were reported, he said. He created a Web site to help parents make good decisions called Child Safe (www.child-safe.org.uk).
Today in Costa Rica