A 'playground for predators': Iowa sex abuse case shows holes in protections for exchange students

Philip Joens
Des Moines Register

A Council Bluffs man working as a foreign exchange student coordinator faces life in prison for sexually abusing international students for whom he was entrusted to find safe homes.

The case exemplifies the vulnerability of foreign exchange students — seeking education and new experiences thousands of miles from home — and the absence of adequate oversight of the programs that lure them to America, advocates for sexual abuse victims say.

Thomas D. Boatright, 51, pleaded guilty this month to four counts of coercion and enticement of a minor, each of which carries a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life.

He admitted to having inappropriate contact with four male students, giving them alcohol and prescription pills and recording them when they used his bathroom between 2018 and 2020, according to court documents. At the time, he served as a foreign exchange student coordinator and host for students for EF Education First.

The Switzerland-based education services firm cut ties with Boatright last year after a student reported finding a hidden camera in the bathroom of his home, where two foreign exchange students were living. Those students were moved to temporary host families and connected to counseling services, authorities were notified, and the company offered to fly the students' parents to the United States to reunite each family, EF Education First spokesperson Adam Bickelman said.

"The safety of our students and host families is always our top priority," Bickelman said. "We remain shocked and saddened by the conduct of this foreign exchange coordinator."

The students are victims of both Boatright and a system that lacks proper oversight at the state and federal level, according to Matty Tate-Smith, a spokesperson for the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

"There were obviously some pretty serious gaps that would've allowed this kind of abuse to occur," Tate-Smith said. "For these coordination programs to not be looking into this and not figuring out where those gaps exist is not OK."

Coordinator groomed victims from the outset

Boatright began grooming his high school-age victims before they ever left their home countries, according to court documents. He used social media and messaging apps to communicate with the boys, and often led conversations of a sexual nature. 

Once they were within his care, he supplied the students with alcohol, made pornography accessible and  persuaded some of them to masturbate in front of him and watch him masturbate, according to the plea to which Boatright agreed.

"(One victim said he) was afraid not to agree to this behavior since the defendant was his caretaker in the United States," the plea agreement said. 

Thomas Boatright

Victims told prosecutors about nights when they would wake up to Boatright touching them inappropriately, a "spa night" during which Boatright supplied one victim with alcohol and pornography, and games of beer pong during which he gave victims pills that they later found to be erectile dysfunction medication, according to the plea agreement and a search warrant. 

In September 2019 Boatright purchased a wall charger with a hidden camera in it and placed it in the upstairs bathroom of his home, facing the toilet, prosecutors said. A foreign exchange student staying with an Omaha family found the camera in February 2020 and notified his host parents. Four days later police executed a search warrant on the home Boatright shared with his husband. 

"The defendant's actions were intentional in convincing these minor children to be comfortable with him and his sexual advances," prosecutors wrote in the plea agreement.

Boatright's husband filed for divorce less than a month after he was arrested, and "was not a target of the investigation," assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Scherle said.

Boatright will be sentenced June 4 in Council Bluffs. The length of sentence a judge will impose is uncertain, his plea agreement said.

Programs can become 'playground for predators'

Boatright served as an independent contractor, according to EF Education. Bickelman, its spokesperson, did not say how many students Boatright hosted or placed with other families.

Local coordinators play no role in recruiting students, Bickelman said. Their primary responsibility is to recruit host families and hold "onboarding" sessions. They are also the local point of contact for exchange students and their families.

Placement coordinators are paid hundreds of dollars for each student they place with local families, according to an EF Education brochure. Local coordinators could also be rewarded with trips to Las Vegas or Iceland if they placed enough students in 2020. 

Programs can cost students $12,000 to $18,000, said Danielle Grijalva, director of the California-based non-profit Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students.

"Many students want to improve their English, and many students are just curious about how Americans live," Grijalva said. "They just can’t believe they’re coming to America."

Beth Barnhill, Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault executive director, said she has not previously seen a case like Boatright's in Iowa. Matt Highland, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Human Services, said DHS does not have "any data specific to foreign exchange students." 

But nationwide there has been a long history of children being sexually abused while participating in foreign exchange programs.

In 2014, a Miami man who hosted children for a different student exchange company married a Spanish student he hosted when she came to the U.S. at age 16, according to the Miami Herald. The couple then conspired to sexually abuse her sister. 

San Diego-based Pacific Intercultural Exchange was suspended in 2012 by the U.S. State Department, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The nonprofit company was hounded by allegations that its students were being sexually abused. Grijalva said the company shut its doors permanently after repeated violations of federal rules designed to protect students. 

She described the system as a "playground for predators."

"The regulations just are not being adhered to," Grijalva said. "It's a widespread problem. Nobody seems to be watching. Nobody seems to care. That's why these cases are just rampant."

More:Chilean international students allege Sioux City community college forced them to work at dog food factory under threat of deportation

Background checks 'not fail-safe'; oversight responsibility unclear

It is not clear who is providing oversight of hosts, Tate-Smith said. EF Education First and the U.S. State Department require hosts to be at least 25 years old, pass a criminal background check and "have a stable and suitable household," according to the company's website

From 2004 to 2007, Boatright got two speeding tickets and a citation for having an expired registration while living in North Carolina. Those would not have raised red flags during a background check, Tate-Smith and Grijalva said. 

"It's not fail-safe," Tate-Smith said of background checks. "So you need to have things in place that will protect these kids. I don't see that being the case in that particular situation." 

Federal law leaves it to third-party sponsors, such as the companies that run exchange programs, to oversee host-family placement, said Michael Cavey, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. 

Sponsors must visit the home of a host family before a host is selected, Cavey said. A different person must conduct another home visit within two months of the student's placement, Cavey said.

Local coordinators are required by federal law to check in with all students and host families each month "using a survey we provide," Bickelman said. EF Education and the State Department have 24-hour hotlines for students to report problems with hosts, Bickelman said. 

"Exchange students learn of these and other support resources during an onboarding preparation orientation that we host for all program participants before they meet their host families," Bickelman said.

Oversight obligations are also unclear at the local level. Schools that have international students must report incidents that are reported to them, but many schools are not aware of this obligation, Tate-Smith said. It is also unclear which state agencies oversee foreign exchange students in Iowa. 

"In theory, our understanding is the state board of education or the department of education should have some kind of oversight and regulations for international students, but a lot of times this doesn't reach beyond basic issuing rules, regulations, policies, monitoring visa compliance," Tate-Smith said. 

"From what we know, there's no real coordinating or accrediting body for all the various programs that exist for international students."

Iowa Department of Education spokesperson Heather Doe  said that the Education Department "does not have authority or oversight of the foreign exchange student process." The Education Department did not have any record of any complaints against Boatright, Doe said. 

But companies rarely pay any price when their employees violate rules, Grijalva said.

"I really believe there’s not accountability in many of these exchange agencies," Grijalva said,

Philip Joens covers breaking news for The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-443-3347 at pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.