“He said ‘this is American culture,’ and I should get used to it,” said Christopher Herbon of Germany, one of four exchange students who were sexually assaulted over the course of two years by the same host father.
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According to the investigation, a program run by the State Department has covered up the crimes and hidden flaws within the system that allowed the abuse to take place.
Most of those teens have a great experience and cases of sexual abuse are rare. But NBC News’ investigation found two major flaws in the system. A lack of oversight can allow sexual predators to take advantage of the program. And when sexual abuse does happen, there is evidence that the students are sent back to their home countries with little or no support from the exchange organizations or the State Department.
There are more than 80 organizations that pay a fee to get the State Department’s stamp of approval as a “designated sponsor organization.” That distinction allows the organizations to place the students with host families for one academic year. Each organization in turn must follow regulations designed to protect the students from harm.
The host families do not receive any compensation, but the students’ parents can pay more than $10,000 for their child’s year abroad. The largest organizations for which there are records take in an average of seven million dollars each year, according to an NBC News review of their Internal Revenue Service filings.
The more students they place, the more revenues for the organizations, and critics say the financial incentives create an environment ripe for abuse.
“These sponsoring agencies make a lot of money for each of these kids. The profit margin is very big, and they’re motivated to get them into some house, somewhere, without the proper vetting. So it’s a perfect storm. It’s sort of abuse waiting to happen,” said attorney Irwin Zalkin, who along with attorney Andrea Leavitt represented Herbon and three other exchange students sexually abused by a host father and local coordinator for one of the organizations.