updated 5/5/2006 5:45:30 PM ET 2006-05-05T21:45:30

The families who host the nearly 30,000 foreign exchange students who stay in the United States each year now will have to undergo criminal background checks, under new federal rules that went into effect this week.

Under the U.S. State Department rules, exchange student programs also will be required to tell the students how to identify and report sexual abuse, and to notify the department and local law enforcement of any reports of abuse.

Advocates cite a number of cases in which adult hosts have been accused of abuse, but host families say the change may make some parents think twice about hosting foreign youngsters.

"I think they're trying too hard," said Ruth Ingram of Columbia, who hosted exchange students from New Zealand and Finland with her late husband.

The extent of the abuse problem is difficult to gauge, but many in the industry concede such checks are necessary.

‘We have to do it’
"It's a sign of the times," said John Hishmeh, executive director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, an industry accreditation group. "We have to do it, and it makes sense."

The new State Department rules were publicly proposed last summer and went into effect Thursday. "The safety and security of these participants are of paramount importance to the department," officials said in a statement in August.

The acting director of the State Department's Office of Exchange Coordination and Designation, Stanley Colvin, said last year it had received only five reports of abuse.

Among the recently publicized cases was that of Andrew T. Powers, a high school biology teacher in Gaithersburg, Md., convicted last year of sexual assault involving a 17-year-old German girl who lived in his home. In April, Paul Stone of Berea, Ky., pleaded guilty to sodomizing a 15-year-old Taiwanese girl his family hosted.

A former exchange program coordinator who led the lobbying effort for the new federal rules suggested the problem is far greater than the record indicates.

‘The dirty little secret’
It's "the dirty little secret of the student exchange industry," said Danielle Grijalva of Oceanside, Calif. Many cases have gone unreported because of language, cultural barriers and students' fears that reporting abuse could jeopardize their visas, she said.

Grijalva said she formed the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students two years ago because of problems reported by an exchange student she knew while serving as a program coordinator. The group has received more than 50 reports of abuse of foreign exchange students, she said.

"I learned that what I was experiencing were not isolated incidents," she said. "Way too many children were leaving the United States with horrible impressions."

Hishmeh said his group has adopted screening requirements that go beyond the new federal measures, including a stipulation that criminal background checks cover all 50 U.S. states.

"If we're going to do this, we're going to do this properly," he said.

Hishmeh added that most exchange programs embrace the added scrutiny. But Moacir Rodrigues, executive director of United Students Association of Mansfield, Texas, said the regulations will make it even harder to recruit host families.

"They're willing to share their lives, share their homes," he said. "Some people are going to get offended and not have anything to do with it. It's too much trouble."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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