By HOLBROOK MOHR and MITCH WEISS, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Despite dozens of allegations of neglect and sexual abuse over the years, the U.S. State Department abandoned a plan to require FBI-based fingerprint searches for people hosting foreign high school exchange students, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The federal agency in recent years considered but dropped a plan to require FBI background checks similar to what are used by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts because it wasn't "feasible," according to the State Department documents.
The agency was taking a serious look at requiring the checks as far back as 2010 and identified a dozen private companies that are authorized to use the FBI's database, according to the documents. The State Department later settled on a pilot program with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, but that ended in March 2011 because Congress didn't reauthorize the program and due to budget shortfalls.
The State Department didn't enact a different method to require the fingerprint checks that provide an in-depth, nationwide look at criminal records. The agency requires third-party companies that place students with host families to conduct background checks, but advocates say the system is problematic because it leaves the vetting in the hands of the companies. State and local background checks may miss some crimes, and an AP review found cases of students who ended up living with convicted criminals.
By not requiring the fingerprint checks, the government has sent the wrong message, especially at a time when cases of mistreatment and sexual abuse continue to surface, advocates said.
The Exchange Visitor Program brings close to 30,000 high school students to the United States each year. Foreign students live with a host family for a year and attend U.S. schools. It's supposed to be a learning experience for the students, but over the years, dozens of students have been abused, according to State Department records, advocates and court documents.
The agency received 43 allegations of sexual abuse since the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday.
"From the State Department's point of view and the Secretary of State's point of view, even one child abused under these programs is one child too many. That is why we've undertaken a number of reforms to strengthen the program," Toner said in an email.
In recent years, the agency has adopted several rules designed to safeguard students in the high school program, including requiring all sponsors to photograph the exterior of the house, the kitchen and student's bedroom. Host families also must provide outside character references — previously, family members and sponsors could be such references.
Yet other critical changes considered by the State Department didn't last, including the pilot program with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that would have used the FBI fingerprint checks.
"While FBI fingerprinting is the preferred approach for criminal background checks, doing so is not feasible at this time," an April 2011 State Department memo said.
Companies that sponsor students opposed the proposal to use the fingerprinting because they said "it could not be executed in a timely, cost effective or convenient manner," according to information published in the Federal Register.
Danielle Grijalalva, executive director of the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students, said she has found dozens of cases of sexual abuse over the years and forwarded the complaints to the State Department. Yet the agency has done little to investigate them, she said.
"The State Department is watching exchange agencies like the Catholic Church watched its (pedophile) priests," she said.
Advocates place blame on the way the agency relies on designated sponsors — companies that facilitate the program by arranging places for the students to live — to perform background checks on host families.
Last year, the State Department took steps to sever its relationship with one sponsor after the company placed a student "with a host family whose criminal background check revealed a murder conviction," according to agency memos. One document from last year said a review by the State Department found that 15 of its 39 "largest fee-charging" sponsors were in "regulatory noncompliance," though it didn't say what rules were violated.