Welcome to America (Please Ignore the Dog Shit): S.F.-Based Foreign Exchange Student Organization Ensnared in Housing Scandal

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When a 15-year-old Nigerian girl paid the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, Aspect Foundation, thousands of dollars to place her in an American home, the last thing she expected was to to be sent to a soon-to-be-condemned house strewn with dog feces. Other students placed in Pennsylvania homes by the same organization never expected to wind up in the hospital for malnutrition and dehydration, live with ex-convicts, or be forced to eat sardines for dinner every night. But they say that's exactly what happened.

As reported by the Pennsylvania Times Leader, a total of 12 students, ages 15 to 18, have claimed that the San Francisco-based organization placed them in homes that were unlivable. Last Thursday, nine of those students testified before a grand jury in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, and three have been relocated to new homes.

The students claimed that Aspect Foundation's area coordinator in Pennsylvania, Edna Burgette, had not secured a place for them to live before they arrived in the US. One 17- year-old boy from Columbia said that when he arrived, Burgette dragged him around to random houses and asked anyone who answered whether they would like to host him. 

According to Pennsylvania locals familiar with the coordinator, Burgette had been taking advantage of the students for years and should have been fired by the head honchos at the Foundation's San Francisco headquarters years ago.

In a prepared news release, Aspect Foundation's executive director, Vivian Fearen, said that Burgette -- who was personally hosting the Nigerian student before she was moved to a new home -- has been fired for violating the nonprofit organization's policy -- by hosting a student, which area coordinators are not supposed to do -- and filing false reports. The news release also stated that the foundation had closed nationwide enrollment in the program, suspended managers assigned to northeastern Pennsylvania, and "reassigned their responsibilities."

Calls placed to Aspect Foundation's headquarters were redirected to their representative at the Neiman Group, a public relations company, and have not yet been returned. 

The Aspect Foundation case touches on a potentially larger oversight problem with foreign exchange student services throughout the country. Early last week, Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging the State Department, which is responsible for overseeing and implementing youth exchange programs, to investigate the allegations of abuse. "I am concerned that the current oversight system is reactive and not proactive and permits the ongoing abuse of foreign students without any effective intervention until the situation is dire," reads the letter. "The situation these students found themselves in only came to attention once teachers voiced their concerns."

You don't have to wander far from Aspect Foundation's downtown headquarters to find yet another San Francisco-based nonprofit foreign exchange service, AYUSA Global Youth Exchange, involved in a scandal of its own. Over the years, a number of students placed in U.S. homes by AYUSA have claimed neglect or sexual abuse.

Both of the San Francisco-based nonprofits bring in hefty sums from either government funding and/or tuition paid by the students. According to Aspect Foundation's tax forms, in 2006 the organization made $4.3 million in revenue ($3.6 million of which came from fees that foreign students paid for the homestay program), and placed 1,109 students in U.S. homes.  They sent $1 million of  that (a quarter of their total) revenue directly to Aspect Educational Services, a subsidiary of Kaplan (the test-prep company recently involved in an antitrust lawsuit).The tax forms claim that Aspect Educational Services provides management and marketing services to the nonprofit. It's unclear whether the Foundation is directly related to Aspect Educational Services in other ways.

That same year, AYUSA raked in $15.5. million in revenue, and placed 1,490 students in U.S. homes, according to tax forms. That could buy a lot of sardines.

 

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