The families who host the nearly 30,000 foreign exchange students who stay in the US each year now will have to undergo criminal background checks, under new federal rules that went into effect this week.
Under the US 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 where 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, Missouri, 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.
"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.
The new rules were publicly proposed last summer and went into effect on Thursday.
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 Powers, a high school biology teacher in Gaithersburg, Maryland, convicted last year of sexual assault involving a 17-year-old German girl who lived in his home. Last month, Paul Stone of Berea, Kentucky, 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.
It's "the dirty little secret of the student exchange industry," said Danielle Grijalva of Oceanside, California.
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 a 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 that his group has adopted screening requirements that go beyond the new federal measures.