Pa. woman pleads guilty to child endangerment charges in foreign exchange student scandal

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Woman pleads guilty in Pa. exchange scandal

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A woman accused of placing foreign exchange students in filthy homes in northeastern Pennsylvania pleaded guilty Tuesday to child endangerment in a case that revealed weak federal oversight of companies that bring thousands of students a year to the United States.

Edna Burgette, 69, pleaded guilty in Lackawanna County Court to three misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of children. She had been charged with five felonies.

Burgette placed exchange students in homes around Scranton as a coordinator for the Aspect Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. She was fired after allegations surfaced last May that students were malnourished and living in shoddy homes whose floors were covered with dog feces. Aspect, which was penalized by the U.S. State Department, paid Burgette $400 for each student she placed.

“If she did wrong, she wanted to accept responsibility, make amends and put it behind her,” Burgette’s attorney, Chris Osborne, said Tuesday. “She wanted to do the best she could for all those involved.”

In the wake of the scandal, the State Department’s internal watchdog found that federal officials weren’t doing enough to ensure exchange students’ well-being, leaving the task to the sponsoring organizations themselves.

The department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs acknowledged “serious problems” with monitoring and oversight of exchange students, which total roughly 30,000 per school year. It responded by adding staff, establishing a separate unit to conduct site visits, e-mailing students to ask about how their experiences were going and setting up a database to track problems.

In Scranton, prosecutors said Tuesday’s guilty plea was an appropriate resolution.

“First and foremost, accountability was an important aspect of this case, that Mrs. Burgette accept responsibility for her behavior that placed these children in harm’s way,” said Assistant District Attorney Gene Talerico.

He said the guilty plea also avoids a trial that would have forced the return of the students from their home countries to testify — a considerable burden for them and for taxpayers who would have had to foot the bill. The students were from Vietnam, Tanzania, Nigeria, Colombia and Norway.

Colombian teenager Carlos Villarreal, who lost 14 pounds last school year after Burgette placed him with two ex-convicts in a seedy house that smelled of dog feces and where the food was labeled “DO NOT TOUCH,” said he was satisfied with her plea.

“It’s about time she admitted fault,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In the past she used to talk about our situation like she did nothing wrong.”

Burgette pleaded guilty last week to a federal mail fraud charge, admitting she collected $2,900 using fraudulent paperwork related to the placement of five exchange students.

She awaits sentencing on both the state and federal charges. Sentencing guidelines on both sets of charges call for sentences ranging from supervised release to several months in prison.

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