A California nonprofit placed foreign exchange students in deplorable conditions in Pennsylvania, with some becoming malnourished or living in homes strewn with dog feces, a prosecutor said.
Lackawanna County Deputy District Attorney Michelle Olshefski said an investigation has confirmed that foreign-exchange students were placed in unsuitable homes by a former employee of the Aspect Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that brings about 1,000 exchange students to the United States each year.
"The DA's office is convinced that criminal activity occurred, that there was a pattern of criminal neglect and a pattern of placing these children in danger, not only of physical harm but emotional and psychological harm," said Olshefski, who heads the special victims unit. "We believe that criminal charges are warranted."
Edna Burgette, a former area coordinator with Aspect, was fired after allegations surfaced in May that students were malnourished and living in homes whose floors were covered with dog feces. Burgette was paid $400 for each student she placed. A woman who answered the phone at Burgette's house hung up on a reporter Friday.
State department imposes penalties
The scandal involves as many as a dozen exchange students from Vietnam, Tanzania, Nigeria, Denmark, Colombia, Norway and France. Most have returned to their home countries.
The U.S. State Department, which regulates private student-exchange organizations like Aspect, has imposed a range of penalties on the nonprofit, including a 15 percent reduction in the number of visas it will be allowed to distribute next school year.
"Aspect Foundation fully acknowledges that what happened in Scranton was deplorable and in complete violation of their own strict standards and those of the Department of State's Exchange Visitor Program," Aspect spokeswoman Karen Walsh wrote in an e-mail.
She wrote that the foundation has corrected the problems, fired or accepted resignations of those responsible, and established procedures "to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again."
Criminal investigation continues
Olshefski declined to say whether or when charges would be filed or who would be charged. But she said an investigation continues into whether others knew or should have known that the students were being mistreated.
"We have our suspicions that others, in a way, played a part in Edna's ability to do what she did. Our investigation continues into whether their conduct rises to be criminal," she said.
A grand jury has been investigating the scandal. Because grand jury proceedings in Pennsylvania are secret, Olshefski stressed that her comments are based on a criminal probe that took place outside the grand jury.