ALLENTOWN, Pa. – A Pennsylvania woman was charged Wednesday with criminal neglect for allegedly placing foreign exchange students in filthy homes strewn with animal waste, short on food and sheltering ex-convicts.
Edna Burgette, 69, of Scranton was charged with five felony counts related to the placement of teenagers from Norway, Colombia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Vietnam for Aspect Foundation, a San Francisco-based exchange agency that paid Burgette $400 for each student she placed.
Burgette's whereabouts were unknown Wednesday and police were looking for her. It also was not immediately clear if she had an attorney. The crime carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison on each count of child endangerment.
Burgette was charged following a grand jury investigation that found she "knowingly endangered" the students' welfare," according to documents released Wednesday.
"Burgette continually placed the minor students in danger of physical harm, as well as having exposed them to continued emotional and psychological harm," the grand jury's report said.
The scandal exposed problems with the foreign exchange programs. Agencies like Aspect bring some 30,000 foreign students to the United States each year.
While the U.S. government said most exchange students go home happy, critics said weak regulatory oversight, combined with shoddy industry practices and a shortage of qualified host families, have led to neglect and mental, physical and sexual abuse cases.
The U.S. State Department, which oversees exchange programs, has promised better oversight.
Students told the grand jury that Burgette was difficult to reach and often became angry when they complained about their living conditions. They testified that they chose to stick it out because their families had spent thousands of dollars to send them to the U.S.
One student, a 15-year-old Nigerian girl, said there was so little to eat in her house that she passed out and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Another, an 18-year-old from Tanzania, described being so malnourished that he urinated blood. When he reached out to Aspect for help, Burgette threatened to send him home, he told the grand jury.
"I come here to study, to learn new experience. So I don't want to go back home. I just stay cool and no problem," the student, Mussa Hassan, said.
Carlos Villarreal, an 18-year-old Colombian, testified that he lived with Burgette's boyfriend and a convicted drug dealer in a "disgusting" house where newspapers were always covered in dog urine and feces. Villarreal said he didn't complain much because he saw how Burgette had reacted to the other students' concerns.
"Edna would say that the students who were complaining were being so ungrateful and ridiculous," Villarreal told the grand jury.
Lackawanna County Deputy District Attorney Michelle Olshefski in Scranton said Aspect also could also face criminal charges.
Aspect fired Burgette, saying it deplores her actions and had no prior knowledge of the neglect. Wednesday, a spokesman for the agency would not comment on the possibility of criminal charges against it.
The agency also was penalized by the U.S. State Department, which reduced the number of visas Aspect can distribute next school year by 15 percent — a potential revenue loss of $540,000.