Thousands of students from all over the world will shortly embark on ten-month student exchanges to the United States, often a life changing experience. Sadly, for many it is life changing in the worst possible way. These unfortunate students return home with dark secrets they may be too scared or ashamed to share, feeling they have let down their country, family and school having become victims of abuse.
I urge all schools, parents and students to ask for copies of the host organisation's child protection policy and guidelines before committing a student to an overseas trip. Have host families been police checked? Have their homes been inspected? Parents, take the time now to talk openly about child protection issues. Reassure your children to be open and honest in sharing anything unsettling during their stay.
Students, no matter what you agreed to when signing your organisation's code of conduct, please know you must still share anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, either with the police, your parents, a trusted family member, or a new friend here in the States. Do not be forced to keep quiet about someone else's misbehaviour.
As a former area representative with a student exchange organisation, I have first-hand experience of some student organisations failing to look after children’s best interests. It sickens me to read some letters from past exchange students. A girl from Germany was forced to sleep on a couch, in a cold, damp garage. Others were given hammocks. An Australian boy was forced to sleep with fire ants in his bed. Australian girls were raped by their hosts and their sons. A New Zealand girl was placed with a family so poor she had to buy her own food, which the family stole. A host father encouraged a French boy to walk around the house in his underwear and later exposed him to homosexual pornography, while a host father molested a Danish boy when camping in the mountains.
In February this year, a teacher, Peter William Ruzzo, was jailed for three years for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old German exchange student staying at his home. He said “when he saw her foreign exchange photo, he considered it a challenge even before she got to his home, to have sex with her”.
A retired parole officer contacted me from Eugene, Oregon. Over a three-year period he encountered five convicted sex offenders who gained access to new victims by hosting overseas students. One was convicted of molesting a 16-year-old Japanese girl. Another was accused of raping a 17-year-old Japanese boy who fled for home before the man could be charged. Another convicted rapist hosted an 18-year-old Japanese girl who stayed in his home only a few days before her vulnerability was reported to authorities. During that time, he had groomed, molested and raped her. A year later, the same man hosted a 16-year-old Thai girl. By a fortuitous accident, the parole officer found out and informed the host organisation. Another convicted sex offender was accepted as a host.
How is this possible? Because there are no police checks in the United States. Furthermore, the government authority has written that it would not be worth the expense given so few cases are reported. The US Department of State suggests it is not fair for exchange organisations to incur the minor cost of having a background check performed on the host family. This is despite the fact that many of these organisations are big businesses with multi-million dollar assets. Profit appears to stand in the way of making the best decisions for your child.
Needless to say, officials deny allegations. They always do. Students are accused of being “fussy” and their problems attributed to “culture shock” and “paper work mix-up”.
Parents, although you will be reassured that the United States’ student exchange organisation will look after your precious child’s safety during their entire stay, I want you to know I have seen otherwise. I am doing everything here I possibly can to change the regulations of the Department of State. In the meantime, while they continue looking in the other direction, I encourage you to do all you can to protect your children.
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