Written by Merel Revet – Living and going to school in the United States is a dream for teenagers around the world. On a frequent base, this dream turns out to be a nightmare. Earlier this year a representative from an American exchange organization was arrested for the abuse of several European students. Not only sexual abuse, but also neglect and being used as ‘free cleaners’ are problems that exchange students could run into. Danielle Grijalva, founder of an organizations that stands up for exchange students in unwanted situations, calls it human trafficking, but legal.
23.550 teenagers from all over the world chose an American adventure in the year 2019. They took the step to live with an American host family for a semester or the entire schoolyear. The young adults are between the ages of 15 and 18 years old and their parents paid between €10.000 and €20.000 for this adventure, depending on the organization and the program they’re in. They carefully choose an organization in their homeland, sign an agreement and pay a lot of money. The ‘home organization’ pays the American partner and from that moment, the American partner is responsible for the student. It is the American organization that screens the host family, places the student in a family and carries the responsibility for the exchange program.
The young adults end up in host families that voluntarily choose to host a student. Local responsibles, who recruit, screen and approve the families, are paid for every single student they place. In some organizations the payment/bonus goes up to $1000 per student. Only AFS is working with local coordinators that don’t receive any payment for the screening of host families and helping the students during their time abroad. By law, it is illegal for host families to be paid for having an exchange student and it is mandatory for them to provide the student three meals per day.
20% of the Exchange students coming from the Netherlands, switches of host family or returns home before the end of the program. The overall percentage of students changing of family or returning home, is 32%, according to the SEO of an European exchange organization.
Changing of host family could happen because of a mismatch in personalities, but also sexual abuse and neglect happen on a frequent base.
In February 2020 an EF worker, who was responsible for the screening and approving of host families, was arrested for the sexual abuse of three minor exchange students from Europe. The man worked for EF in the state of Iowa and hosted several students in his own home. The majority of exchange students end up in save situations, but once they are under the responsible of an exchange coordinator who is only focused on making money, they can end up in unwanted/unsafe situations.
Exchange organizations in the Netherlands
All around the world, you can find exchange organizations that provide exchange programs for young adults to go abroad for a long period of time. The Netherlands counts six exchange organizations and the Rotary also has an exchange program. Together, the organizations are sending 370 Dutch students per year to the United States for a high school year program. The organizations have the students sign an agreement, receive an amount of money between €10.000 and €20.000 per student. They prepare the student for the exchange experience, but once she/he is on the plane, the American organization carries the responsibility of the foreign exchange student. The local exchange organization, usually a partner organization, screens the host family, places the student in a family and is the financial guarantor of the student. When an exchange student breaks the law or the rules provided by the organization, the exchange organization is allowed to pull back the Visa and the student will have to return to his/her home country.
When a student runs into any problems or struggles during the high school year, he or she is expected to contact a coordinator/representative from the American partner organization. There are exchange organizations that are very clear about their partner in the USA, but some organizations won’t reveal their partner until the agreement is signed.
Why should you host an exchange student?
American Phyllis, from Georgia, chose to host her fist exchange student in 2010 with the organization AYUSA (partner of the Dutch organization Travel Active), because she thought it would be a good experience. ‘’My husband and I thought it would be good for our children to get in contact with students from other cultures.’’ Their first experience with an exchange student (from the Netherlands) was very positive and the family decided to host another one. This time with a different organization (AIFS) because they weren’t happy about their experience with the AYUSA coordinator. ‘’’The coordinator was always late on appointments and she promised the students a lot of things, but in reality she did nothing.’’ Even though they weren’t happy about the organization(s), their experience with the students (hosted in 2010 and 2012) itself was really good. ‘’The students became part of our family and even called us mom and dad.’’ Because of their good experience with their exchange students, Phyllis and her family decided to host another time. Once again with AYUSA, because their experience with the representative of AIFS was even worse than the one with AYUSA. ‘’That coordinator never showed up at any of the meetings and never asked how our student was doing.’’ Unfortunately the family didn’t feel a personal connection with their student and they have a negative feeling about their last experience.
Sara Wood (ISE hostmom, partner of the Dutch organization Into) stayed abroad twice during her studies. Based on her own experience she knows how much an exchange program can have on the rest of your life, so she decided she wanted to pay it forward. ‘’I wanted my kids to learn about other cultures by having an exchange student and I wanted the student to be part of our community.’’
Kay Bass (Aspect, partner of STS Education) from Texas hosted her first exchange student in 1999. ‘’At that time I had just retired after working as a teacher. A coworker told me about the exchange program and after having some doubts I decided to host one student. That ended up being a great experience and ever since I have been hosting two girls every other year.’’ Kay enjoys learning about other cultures and enjoys showing the girls around in the state of Texas.
American dream becomes American nightmare
During the schoolyear of 2013-2014 I have done my high school year in the United States, with the Dutch exchange organization Into. A dream that became reality, but it turned into a nightmare quite quickly. My first placement was in a family with a mentally disturbed hostmom, who was always screaming. Their house was extremely dirty and I did not feel comfortable in the family. Host family number two lived in the middle of nowhere and wasn’t home very often. It wasn’t until my third family that I could relax. It’s been seven years since my experience and I am researching if my experience was an incident or if it is a structural problem that happens to a lot of exchange students.
‘’They even had security cameras in their bathroom’’
Just like many young (European) students, the Italian Paolo was dreaming about living in the United States, before he left for his exchange in 2015. Paolo was 17 years old at the time. ‘’I was placed in a family in Florida, together with a student from China. The duo was placed with a young couple in a small apartment of 55m2. The bedroom, that he shared with the Chinese student, wasn’t big enough to fit a closet. ‘’The couple was really poor and they couldn’t pay anything for us. Every day, we had to eat outside of the house, because they weren’t cooking for us.’’ Looking back, Paolo is sure that the ‘host mom and dad’ were both convicted criminals. ‘’I have seen mugshots from both of the hostparents, so the criminal background check that is mandatory, doesn’t really work.’’
After living with the family for three weeks, Paolo wants to move. A classmate invites him to live with her and her family and he doesn’t know anything about them, until the moment he moves in with them. ‘’The organization, (ISE, partner of Into), knew as much about them as I did. Their first home visit was on my moving day, when I was there. Officially the ISE representative had to interview the family, run a background check and visit their home. All of that did not happen.’’ The second family consisted of a mom, a dad and eight children. Once again, Paolo felt uncomfortable in the family, but he did not want to admit that he didn’t feel good. ‘’I did not want to come across as a spoiled student that isn’t happy about anything. So I accepted the situation.’’ In the meantime, his parents in Italy, received some concerning messages from the host family. They had cameras in every room of the house and in that way they kept an eye on their exchange student. Even in the bathroom or when he was in his bed during intimate moments with himself. According to the religious family this was not in line with their religion and they messaged his parents on Facebook about the situation. ‘’When my parents told me about this, I was really ashamed. It is illegal to take this kind intimate videos from someone without consent, but they still did. I have called my organization in Italy several times, but they have never helped me with anything.’’ The family didn’t just have cameras all around the house, but they were really poor as well. ‘’Financially speaking, it was impossible to feed another mouth and in the end some of the children have been adopted, because the family was too poor.’’
House full of dog poop
Host family number three is a single elderly lady, living in a run down trailer. ‘’The old lady had a boyfriend, so in the weekend I was forced to stay with my local representative of the organization. She was also living in a trailer and it was filled with dog poop. I had no idea what to do, I was really scared and my parents wanted me to come back to Italy. I decided to stay in the USA and did everything that I could to find a new host family. Unfortunately nobody in my school wanted to help me because I had gotten a bad reputation. Because I had moved twice, people thought it was my fault, but it really wasn’t the case.’’ Paolo ends up talking to a former Italian exchange student through the internet, who had stayed with a family in Ohio. ‘’I emailed them my experience and they invited me to live with them. That’s what I did, because the organization never did anything to put me in a save situation.’’
Abuse of students
After his exchange, Paolo got in contact with Danielle Grijalva, founder of organization CSFES. This charity stands up for the rights of exchange students in the United States. When the organization receives information of concerned parents and/or students, they contact the right people to get a student in a safe situation, as soon as possible. Paolo is currently one of the 800 volunteers, helping students in situations similar to his experience. One of the things that CSFES does is reporting unsafe situations at the State Department and in some cases they email the president. ‘’Unfortunately they don’t really do anything about it because the exchange business is worth millions of Dollars and money seems more important to them than the well-being of students. Every American exchange organization is registered as a non-profit organization, but they all make a lot of profits. The EF tax-record shows that the American leg of the organization made 16 million dollars in the year 2018. Exchange programs make a lot of money and the State Department ignores all the reports of foreign students being a victim of their host family. The most common situations are about sexual abuse of a minor or neglect.’’ According to a spokesperson of CSFES, Paolo’s experience, being filmed during intimate moments, isn’t an independent incident. letter from CSFES to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children proves that these kind of situations happen on a frequent base.
”I would like to point out that there is no problem about the fact that local coordinators are paid for every student placed, if only foreign exchange students were not be placed by them in filthy homes, in families where there is barely enough food to feed the family, or sent to the doorstep of convicted felons and sexual predators. And this happens on a daily basis.”
Prove of these kind of situations can be found in the court cases against host families, like the one earlier this year in Iowa. In the court documents is written that 50-years old Thomas B was convicted for the abuse of three minor students with the goal to make child porn. The students were originally from Spain, Sweden and Italy, according to a spokesperson of CSFES. Thomas B. was working for EF in Iowa and responsible for the screening and placement of exchange students in the region. EF Netherlands confirms to be aware of the situation and indicates that the employee has been fired and charged right away.
CSFES states that in most cases, a lawsuit won’t be filed because organizations know how to twist the situation and make the student seem like the problem. ‘’A lot of students don’t dare to stand up for themselves in bad situations out of fear to be send home. The exchange organizations are actually capable of pulling back the VISA, which does happen in reality. Out of fear, the students choose to keep their mouth shut. Their parents have paid thousands of Euro’s to make their American dream come true and children feel guilty if it doesn’t work out’’, states Paolo.
American hostmom Phyllis remembers her AYUSA responsible telling about Chinese exchange student in host family, that were forced to take care of the entire household. ‘’When the coordinator wanted to take them out of their host family, they refused to leave because the family was making their dream, to live and go to school in the United States, come true. The representative of AIFS was telling similar stories.’’
Shortage of host families
‘’Every year, thousands of students come to the United States to live with a host family. The reality is that, there aren’t enough families that meet all the requirements and still, the government keeps issuing VISA’ to future exchange students. Because of that, host families with the wrong intentions, get the change to host a student.’’ According Danielle Grijalva, founder of CSFES, this is happening because of the shortage of host families and the fact that exchange organizations are making millions of Dollars. Some local representatives receive a financial bonus of $1000 per student that is placed in a family. A lot of these coordinators will place a student in a random family, just to receive the money. Grijalva started CSFES because she knew about the sexual abuse of two exchange students, while she was working at the Center for Cultural Interchange (an exchange organization). The organization that had placed the students didn’t anything and the harder Danielle tried to stand up for the students, the more problems she got. ‘’Every week I receive several emails and phone calls from students and parents who are worried about the safety of their child. In most cases they are right to be worried.’’
Chiara from Italy chose to be an exchange student in the schoolyear of 2019-2020 for one semester. She travelled to the Sates with the Italian organization Yfu Italia-Navigando. A local coordinator from Nacel Open Door (the American partner of Yfu) found a host family that she could stay with, in Minnesota. ‘’The organization send me information about the family and it was written that I would be placed in a family with two children. So I expected to be in a home with five people. In the end, there were three other exchange students living in the house (one of them was in the same program as Chiara, a boy from Brasil) and an eight yeat old girl. We were living there with a total of nine people.’’ Chiara’s host mom was a local representative for the organization and hosed students every year. ‘’The rules within the family were quite weird and they expected us (the exchange students) to do all the chores around the house.
Every day after school, we had to watch the 8-years old girl, clean the house and some days we also had to cook. We were only allowed to shower after 9 o’clock in the evening, because the real children had the priority to go first. I didn’t really felt like I was part of the family, but more like a free maid. My host mom had to find new host families and often said: take an exchange student, they clean your house for free and they watch your kids.’’ Chiara is convinced that the family took her in for the same reasons.
One day, when she had to cook for the family, she had an accident inside of the house. ‘’I was moving a frying pan with hot oil, when one of the young kids jumped on me, so the hot oil fell on my arm. My arm burned quite badly and I wanted to go to the doctor because I was hurting really badly.’’ Chiara’s host mom didn’t agree on going to the doctor because she didn’t want people to find out about the accident that had happened in her home. ‘’She told me that I had to wear long sleeked shirts and I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody about what happened to me.’’ Chiara choose to tell her mom in Italy about the situation and her mom decided to send some medicines to the US. ‘’The wound was bleeding every day and I was in a lot of pain, so something had to be done about it.’’ The host mom found the package and refused to give Chiara the medicines. ‘’She was really angry that I told someone about the accident and thought this was a good punishment.’’
‘’She can do whatever she wants, because she is a good employee.’’
In the end Chiara decided to talk to the counselor in school about the situation in her host family and she is quite shocked. The school informs the police about the family and Chiara contacts her Italian organization. The Italians promise to call the American partner to see if there is something that can be done. They weren’t fully aware of all the contact persons within the American company, because, without realizing, they called the host mom of Chiara. She was working for the American organization. ‘’The day after the phone call I came home from school and my host mom was super upset because the Italian organization had called her to complain about the host family.’’ Chiara realized that she and the student from Brazil, who was also in the family, had to move away. On a daily base she called the American organization, that barely did anything for her. ‘’The boss of my host mom told me that she hosts students every single year and that the complaints are very similar every single time, because the students are badly threatened. The organization does think she is a good employee and that is why they decided to let her do whatever she wants. Like that she can continue working for them.’’ Host families make money for the organizations because like that organizations can place more students. Because of that, in most situations the interests of the host families go above those of the students, simply because the families can make more money in the future.
In the end, one local coordinator, a coworker of her host mom, takes Chiara and the Brazilian student away from the family. ‘’We stayed with the coordinator for one week and it definitely was the best week of my entire exchange semester. We were staying in the coordinators house with a total of dive students who were all in similar situations and who had no idea what was going to happen. I was sleeping on the floor, because there weren’t enough beds. I totally didn’t care about that because I was so happy that I didn’t have to return to my family.
The students did end up finding new host families where they could finish the rest of the exchange period. ‘’My second family did not pass all the laws that were made for host families. I had to sleep on the couch because they didn’t have enough beds and my room did not have a window. I decided not to tell anybody about that, because for the first time I had the feeling to actually be part of an American family.’’ Based on Facebook messages, Chiara found out that her first host family hosted new students after Chiara had left, even after the police being involved. ‘’She welcomed two new students and is still working for the organization Nacel Open Door.’’
Screening of host families
All the (Dutch) organizations promise on their website that the student will be placed in a well-screened host family. The screening is the responsibility of the American partner and has to meet a number of things. The family has to fill out a bunch of paperwork, there is a criminal background check, the families have to deliver some references and there is a (planned) home visit. The exchange organizations in the Netherlands know the big lines about the screening, but they are not able to give any details about how it works exactly. Spokesmen from EF and AFS confirm to fully trust their coworkers in the United States.
Danielle Grijalva thinks that the screening isn’t as trustable as it should be. ‘’We think that the screening should be more reliable and they should do an FBI fingerprint background check. It would give a lot of crucial information, but exchange organizations are against it. In reality it happens quite often that students are placed in families with a criminal background or even jailtime in the past.’’ The second point that Danielle worries about is the fact that families get to choose their student based of a picture. ‘’Like this, future victims are delivered at a pedophile’s doorstep. It’s a predator’s playground.’’
According to the American law, the homes of host families have to meet certain requirements. The student has to have a bed for itself, is not allowed to share a bedroom with someone of a different gender and the age gap can’t be bigger than five years. Besides that, the house needs to offer a place where the student can make her/his homework and the family has to provide three meals per day. The screening is done by a local coordinator of an exchange organization and he/she decides if a family is fit to host a student. Nirina from Belgium, experienced that the screening isn’t always going well. ‘’I was placed in a welcome family, that I could only stay with for a short time. I had to find myself a new host family and in the end I stayed with six different families before I found one that I felt comfortable with. My host mom told me that the screening was quite weird. She had to share contact information from the people around her, so that they could be called and answer some questions about her. They called her coworkers and neighbor’s, but the call didn’t last more than 30 seconds. ‘’Do you know *name host mom* yes? Is she friendly? Okay, thank you.’’ There haven’t been any interviews and the home visit was cancelled. The coordinator was to busy to come by the house.’’
‘’They needed 1 hour for a background check’’
Henry and Verakay Johnson from South Dakota decided to host a student, when their friends hosted a student from Italy, Annachiara. ‘’Annachiara was in North Dakota with a Dutch student (Merel) and she was placed with a second family where she felt unhappy. They asked if we wanted to help and we ended up saying yes.’’ The screening process wasn’t the way they expected it to be.
Because of them, I can live my dream
Simone from the Netherlands left her home country for six months, in the summer of 2018, to spent one semester at a high school in Massachusetts. ‘’Four weeks before leaving the Netherlands I received a message from my organization, STS Education, that I was placed with a family in Maine. Two weeks later I received a message that I would go to Massachusetts instead. There was a family that really wanted to host me, so they decided to cancel the first family. Apparently the family told the organization that they would only want to host me and no other student.’’ Simone and her parents think it is kind of a weird situation, but she decides to go anyways. ‘’I thought: I will see how it goes.’’
Once she is in the United States in turns out to be quite complicated for Simone to connect with her host family. ‘’The son of the family had just left the house to go to college and the father wasn’t home on weekdays because of his work. So it basically was me and the host mom. She thought I was a great solution for not having to spend her time alone. All she wanted to do was sitting on the couch and watch movies together, while I wanted to be an American teenager, make new friends and be out of the house. She also thought I was quite useful to help around the house, so I had to do quite a lot of chorus. Apparently it wasn’t enough, because sometimes she felt the need to talk to her dog about the fact that she really had a though life and wished there was someone to help her out. She was talking loud enough, so I could hear it and feel guilty about it. I did not tell anybody about it, because I realized that this family was making it possible for me to study in the United States.’’ Simone was already living with the family for a while when people started wondering who she was living with. Once she told them the family name she got some shocked responses. ‘’Apparently she was known for being an unfriendly woman and that’s when I realized that it wasn’t my fault.’’ Simone told her local coordinator about her struggles and he confirmed that the people in the community weren’t very positive about the family. And he said that he understood that I was struggling to live with them. So he actually agreed right away on having me moved to another family and I found one myself. I wasn’t allowed to tell my first host family that I was being moved until the moving day itself. I had double feelings about it, but I did understand it when it was moving day. My host mom was screaming and afterwards she has send me a lot of nasty messages. She even emailed my mom to tell her that I was a terrible student.’’ Up till the present day, Simone doesn’t understand why she was placed with this family. ‘’They were known to be unfriendly and even the coordinator knew about it. And still, I had to live with them.’’
Interest of student is less important
Students carefully choose the exchange organization in their home land. In reality this organization doesn’t really have a saying once the student is abroad. On the websites of Dutch organizations is written that they are working with a partner, but the name of the partner is untraceable.
During the exchange, the partner is the financial guarantee for the student and when he or she doesn’t follow the rules of the program, the student can be send home. This is exactly the reason why a lot of students don’t dare standing up for themselves. Some students are lucky to have a local coordinator who really takes care of the students, but there are also quite some coordinators who only care about the money or the status. When a student has problems, and causes extra work because of it, the coordinator wants it to be fixed as soon as possible. The student can find a new family itself or he/she will be send home. The interest of host families and exchange organization workers are more important than the interest of the student itself. The organization has already received the thousands of Dollars for the student, who is already in the United States. According to Danielle Grijalva, there is only one solution to the problem: ‘’we need to accept less students into the country as long as we don’t have enough quality host families. Right now the whole business around exchange students, looks a lot like human trafficking, but legal.’’
Ofcourse there are a lot of positive experiences from students and there are coordinators/representatives within each (American) organization that actually want the best for a student. On this Instagram account you will be able to read the experience from several exchange students from all around the world.
Comments from the Dutch organizations
Six Dutch exchange organizations have been asked to respond on the conclusion of the story and the specific experiences that involve the organizations or it’s partners in the United States of America.
Mike Heijstek, spokesman for exchange organization EF comments during a phonecall that EF Netherlands fully trusts the coworkers of EF in the United States for the screening. They can never guarantee 100% of safety. ‘’That’s the case everywhere. If I am going to rob a bank next week, today I can say that I have never been in touch with the police. We can’t control if it is going to happen in the future or not.’’
AFS confirms that local representatives are not paid for the placement of a students. Manager outgoing program Hester Vink, understands that when a representative gets paid, it could have an influence on the screening. As for the screening itself, the American leg of ASF does the screening according to the American laws and the rules of the company. ‘’The checks in the US are strict, AFS does a home visit and fills in all kinds of paperwork. They (the American AFS) also do criminal background checks and provide some references, that is a mandatory part of the screening.’’
CEO of Into Group, John D Fisher responded to the parts of the article that involve Into and their partner organizations by email. He informs us that an high school year is a great opportunity and experience. He apologizes on behalf of the entire Into group for my experience with the organizations and informs me that the coordinators who were involved in my situation, are no longer working within the company.
Regards the future, he informs us that they have made changes within the company. Into checks social media accounts of host families and when it doesn’t give them a positive feeling, they refuse a placement. Fisher hopes that the high school branch has learned from their mistakes and will improve their standards in the future.
You will find the entire statement on this page.
STS Education country manager Ben Dessens responds on the parts of the article that involve STS Education and their partner organizations by email. He informs us to be partly aware of Simone’s experience. ‘’We haven’t heard anything from her or her parents about struggles in her host family and her hostmom. Actually, we have only received positive messages about her exchange. Because of that, we did not get the chance to address the problem at Greenheart (Sinone’s partner organization), so there was no way we could have mediated.’’
‘’By definition, exchange programs are organized to provide young people a valuable experience abroad. We facilitate this in the best possible way. Programs are constantly improved and students and parents are well prepared (also about the steps that they could take, when things don’t work out the way they want), in the Netherlands, but also upon arrival in the USA.’’
Interlanguage refuses to contribute in this research. Jolien from Travel Active responds by email that the organization doesn’t recognize itself in the conclusion of this article and wishes to not respond on the research.