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Sex, drugs and abuse: Higher risks for homestay students

VANCOUVER - When Sabrina Wong and her husband opened their home to a17-year-old high school student from China a few years back, they grewuneasy when the boyfriends started showing up.

VANCOUVER - When Sabrina Wong and her husband opened their home to a 17-year-old high school student from China a few years back, they grew uneasy when the boyfriends started showing up.

Putting meals on the table and supplying a warm bed didn't entitle - or even permit - the Vancouver woman to take the teen under her wing.

“My concern was, obviously, unsafe sexual practices,” Wong said, noting one paramour who was much older and had a car.

“I don't really know what's going on with the relationship because I'm not allowed to talk about the relationship or that kind of stuff,” she said of her role as a homestay host.

“She's not necessarily talking with her parents about it because she may not want her parents to know she has a boyfriend.”

Wong works as a University of British Columbia associate professor, doing research on vulnerable youth and for the past four years she has opened her home to students who come from abroad to study in Canada.

Most homestays are arranged by agencies that work as a liaison between people looking to learn English and about Canadian culture and residents willing to provide a room and some level of food or assistance to the newcomer. Depending on accommodations and meals, fees can average about $750 per month.

Wong's early experience made her wonder if she felt uncomfortable watching the teen under her own roof cut loose without limits, there could be others.

A study published Tuesday in the May/June issue of the Canadian Journal of Public Health shows Wong's parental instincts are right on the mark.

Foreign homestay students attending high school in B.C. appear to be more greatly exposed to major health risks, including smoking, drug use, early sexual intercourse and sexual abuse.

Focusing on East Asian students, who comprise the majority of homestay students in B.C., Wong and her team analyzed data from the 2003 B.C. Adolescent Health Survey conducted by the McCreary Centre Society.

They captured self-reported results of about 3,000 Chinese, Korean and Japanese students between Grades 7 and 12. The researchers were unable to get statistics from the province but estimate there are 3,000 to 5,000 international homestay students in B.C. high schools.

Compared to immigrant or Canadian-born East Asian teens, they found that homestay students were twice as likely to be sexually active, and 23 per cent of homestay girls reported sexual abuse compared to nine per cent of their female peers.

Homestay students were also two to six times more likely to report using cocaine, half skipped school in the month before the survey - compared to a quarter of peers - and 20 per cent were smokers compared to five to nine per cent of peers.

“It really looks like a pattern that some of these kids may be sexually exploited,” said UBC professor Elizabeth Saewyc, the research director at the non-profit McCreary Centre who helped develop the survey.

“Are we taking care of other people's kids as well as we're taking care of our own?”

Homestay students were also far less likely to partake in extracurricular activities.

According to the study, a range of agencies facilitate the $60-million Canadian homestay industry. Each has different rules, requirements and strictness of host security checks. Most dictate hosts shouldn't talk to students about health issues, especially reproductive and sexual health.

Wong said unlike the highly-regulated foster care system, homestay has little to no formal oversight. She's calling for that to change.

“We need a more nurturing system that is able to promote (teen's) health in the widest sense - emotional, physical and spiritual well-being,” Wong said.

Typically a homestay student arrives while underage, void of parents, and the immigration system isn't tasked with following up. The education system only watches them until the bell rings at 3 p.m., and homestay equates to food and board, Wong said.

“They seem like they're a forgotten group, they fall through the cracks,” she said. “There's no one here who could be considered their guardian.”

 
 
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