Thousands of foreign adolescents arrive in Canada to study English every year, and many of them step off a plane into the care of a homestay family. According to new research, they are also stepping into a dangerously unmonitored industry.
Compared with immigrant or Canadian-born Asian students, the researchers found that homestay students in British Columbia are up to six times more likely to take cocaine and three times more likely to binge-drink. They are more sexually active and skip school more often. Nearly a quarter of homestay girls reported being sexually abused, versus 9 per cent of their Canadian peers.
The authors of the study, which was released Tuesday by the University of British Columbia School of Nursing, are calling for government oversight of homestays.
"There's no policies, there's no regulation, there's no standards, there's no reporting," said lead author Sabrina Wong. "If we think about normal adolescent behaviour, about what they need, there's something they're missing here." Dr. Wong estimates that homestays bring in $60-million a year in B.C. alone, though other estimates are in the billion-dollar range.
The study, the first of its kind in Canada, surveyed health and risk-taking behaviour of 3,000 Asian homestay students in Grades 7 through 12 in British Columbia.
In May, police raided an apartment allegedly operating as a brothel in downtown Vancouver. They discovered a 17-year-old homestay student from China and two other adult women. Resident Xiao Jin Zhao was charged with procuring a person to become a prostitute. In 2007, a man who was arrested for robbing and brutally beating four Asian women in Vancouver was later discovered to be a former homestay host for young foreign students.
There were 18,200 foreign students at the secondary level or lower in Canada in 2008, according to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. The majority of foreign students are in B.C. and Ontario.
Screening of homestay families is entirely at the discretion of placement agencies, or a school's internal accommodation staff. Dr. Wong decided to conduct the study after becoming a homestay host parent herself and realizing that oversight was non-existent.
At the International Language Academy of Canada, accommodations director Eluisa Rivera places up to 4,000 students in Toronto homestays every year. "I strongly believe that [the industry]should be regulated," Ms. Rivera said. Government oversight "would make it more secure" and give parents overseas peace of mind. ILAC conducts police checks of host family members.
Ken Gardner, president of the Vancouver English Centre, said he would prefer non-government oversight of homestays, and in particular a privately managed register of host families, including a blacklist. When his company gets complaints about a host, Mr. Gardner said, "we would stop working with them, but they would just go to another school." He believes the value of police checks "is really minimal" - someone without a criminal record could still abuse young students. The school prefers to screen families with a multi-page report, home visits and student evaluations.
Spokespeople for the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and the Ministry of Education in Ontario said their departments are not responsible for regulating homestay agencies. They are "a bit of a grey area," said Frank Clarke, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education.
Immigration and Citizenship Canada "is unable to speculate" on whether the department, or any other, may move to regulate homestays, a spokesperson said.