This story was published in partnership with Government Accountability Project.
Top photo: Colombian au pair Natalie Castillo, photographed near her apartment in Vienna.
Natalie Castillo dreamed of attending medical school in the United States. But before she started applying to schools, Castillo, then 22, wanted to perfect her English by immersing herself in the language in a way she couldn’t do at home in Colombia.
She signed up to become an au pair, one of the roughly 20,000 young people — overwhelmingly women ― from abroad who come to the U.S. each year as part of the State Department’s exchange visitor program.
These au pairs are granted J-1 visas that temporarily allow them to live in the U.S. in return for providing child care for host families ― a program currently on pause for new arrivals due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The State Department authorizes private companies to contract with these young people and charge them thousands of dollars in fees to cover their placement and provide assistance while they are in the U.S. Those companies also charge host families around $10,000 a year to hire an au pair.
This was the arrangement Castillo had with Cultural Care Au Pair, the largest of 15 government-licensed au pair companies, when she arrived in Seattle in April 2016. She spent a little over a year working for one host family, then changed families and moved to New Jersey. There, Castillo says she was forced to work 11-to-12-hour days taking care of two young boys who regularly hit, kicked and bit her.
She said she felt pressure from the family and Cultural Care to continue in the job. Then things really fell apart in August 2017. The boys were fighting, and Castillo tried to separate them. She threatened to call their father. When she turned around to go make the call, they attacked her from behind, punching and kicking her, she said.
Her host mother tried to apologize, but Castillo was done. She called Cultural Care and asked to change families.
Castillo was surprised when a company representative told her they already knew about potential danger at that home. It was “all well documented that the children were biting and kicking and hitting” in reports from a previous au pair, the representative told her on the call, which Castillo recorded and provided to HuffPost.
Castillo was in fact the third au pair to report an injury to Cultural Care while working for this family, according to the company representative. The au pair before her had been hospitalized for a hand injury, which the Cultural Care representative also acknowledged on the call. (Both previous au pairs declined to comment for this article.)
After Castillo’s complaint, Cultural Care removed the family from the program. But government regulations also required the company to report the abuse and complaint to the State Department. The Cultural Care representative told Castillo several times, on the recordings, that nothing had been reported to the government, even a month after the initial incident.
Instead, Cultural Care tried to send Castillo back to Colombia eight months early — and asked her to cover part of the cost of the flight — even though she had paid the company roughly $1,500 to participate in the program for two full years. “If you want to go to Cali,” the representative told her, referring to flights to her home city in Colombia, “then you need to get money from your family.” The other option the company suggested was for her to remain in the United States, undocumented. If she didn’t take the flight the company had arranged, the representative said, “you’ll be on your own to figure out how you’re going to get home.”
According to Castillo, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, her former host mother claimed she’d deliberately hit one of the boys with her phone during it, which provided the company with an easy justification for her removal. The host later retracted the allegation ― which Cultural Care acknowledged in one of the recorded calls ― but the company, citing what her host said, still used it as the excuse to fire her. “You have to go home,” the representative said. “You have to go home tomorrow.”
“We’ve worked with upper management,” the Cultural Care representative told Castillo. “This is the decision that’s been made.”
Before she could be sent home, a friend contacted the State Department on her behalf, detailing both the alleged abuse and the company’s failure to report. The department intervened to stop her deportation and allowed Castillo to find a new host family. But it does not appear to have taken any action against Cultural Care.
That, unfortunately, seems to be the norm when it comes to these companies. A HuffPost and Government Accountability Project investigation looked at thousands of pages of State Department documents, surveyed 125 au pairs and spoke to more than 40 current and former employees of au pair companies. The investigation found a disturbing pattern of alleged exploitation and abuse that the companies regularly failed to report. The federal government did not take action to punish companies it caught failing to report issues.
“I’ve been made to feel like someone’s slave who doesn’t have the right to speak up.”
Every year, au pairs report traumas to au pair companies, ranging from coerced labor to physical and sexual abuse. The au pairs interviewed for this article claimed that host children had threatened them with knives, that host parents had confiscated their passports or locked them in a basement as a punishment. Many au pairs said the companies dismissed their allegations when they reported these incidents.
“We do not comment on individual cases out of respect for all program participants,” said a Cultural Care spokesperson. “Having any au pair look back upon their program experience in a negative way is incredibly disappointing. We will continue to strive to provide the highest levels of support and learn from any opportunities to improve.”
There are also more general concerns about the labor conditions and wages the au pair program in the U.S. enables, because it is classified as a cultural exchange program rather than a work program. Au pairs live with their employers and are expected to work full time, or more, for wages that work out to as low as $4.35 an hour. The low price is the program’s main selling point for host families who would otherwise have to pay a nanny as much as $25 an hour. Watchdogs say that as a diplomatic agency, the State Department lacks the oversight capability on these issues that the Department of Labor could provide, and that the program’s quasi-regulated status makes it ripe for abuse.
Last July, a federal judge in Denver approved a $65.5 million class-action settlement with Cultural Care and 14 other au pair companies over claims of unpaid wages and what au pairs alleged to be illegal collusion on au pair pay rates. In December 2019, a Massachusetts federal appeals court required that au pairs in that state be paid overtime and the state minimum wage of $12 per hour.
“The Au Pair Program strengthens U.S. diplomacy goals, provides au pairs with valuable career skills and prepares American children to succeed,” said the Alliance for International Exchange, a lobbying group representing eight au pair companies. “Department of State regulations support the health and safety of au pairs and American host families alike. They include monthly check ins, 24-hour emergency help, weekly hour limits, and two weeks of paid vacation.”
The Alliance cited surveys that they said showed most au pairs in the program had positive experiences. Those surveys were produced by the au pair companies themselves.
Au pairs — who come to a new country with little social support, limited income, and few contacts beyond their employer — are often left with few places to turn for help. And because au pairs live with their boss, if something happens, they may be left without a safe place to go.
The companies are their best hope for protection, but “the longer people work at the agency, the better they are at detaching themselves from your situation,” said Freya, another former Cultural Care au pair from the United Kingdom, who asked to be identified by only her first name.
When Freya told company officials about being forced to constantly work extra hours, she says she was told not to officially report this — to avoid making things awkward with her hosts. After 11 months in the program, she left without telling anyone.
“I simply can’t do it anymore,” Freya wrote to a Cultural Care representative when she returned home. Instead of support, she said the representative asked her to explain her decision to leave so her former hosts could have “closure.”
“Coming here, I’ve been made to feel like someone’s slave who doesn’t have the right to speak up,” Freya said.
Au Pair Abuse Allegations Go Unreported
State Department documents, obtained from public databases and through a Government Accountability Project Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, show repeated failures to crack down on au pair companies that don’t report regulatory violations and allegations of abuse.
In a March 14, 2014, email to the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the au pair program, one concerned individual wrote: “Do program rules allow convicted sex offenders in the house overnight with au pairs?”
The emailer said their ex-spouse’s current boyfriend was a registered sex offender, and the ex-spouse and boyfriend had an au pair. The emailer had already warned the au pair company, Au Pair in America, but was concerned because nothing had happened.
“Au Pair in America was aware of the situation and did not report it to the Department,” an unnamed State Department analyst wrote in a government case management system file. “Au pair was still in the host family home.”
After the former spouse alerted the department, that au pair was removed from the home. But there were no consequences for the Au Pair in America, which the State Department acknowledged.
“Au Pair in America stands by our commitment to protecting the health, safety and well-being of all au pairs in our program, while not discussing individual situations,” the company said in a statement.
In 2013, another company, GoAuPair, allegedly failed to report a sexual assault allegation to the government. The au pair “report[ed] sexual harassment verbal and physical” to the company, a program analyst wrote in her case management notes. The alleged abuse came to the State Department’s attention through a former host parent’s complaint that the au pair’s allegation was false, but the “Sponsor [did] not report” the claim of abuse, the note said, until the State Department sent the company an email.
The company disputed that it failed to report this case. “As soon as Go Au Pair was notified by the au pair of the alleged inappropriate behavior, we immediately had the au pair removed from the host family home to a safe location,” Bill Kapler, GoAuPair’s president, wrote in an email. “This was obviously reported with the DOS.”
Amely Conrad, an Oregon-based au pair, sued USAuPair in 2011. She alleged that the father in her host family had sexually assaulted her, and that the subsequent police investigation had revealed the company knew that two previous au pairs had also accused the host of sexual assault and harassment.
The government found out about that case only after it was covered by the local news, not from the company. “Au pair sues sponsor; sponsor failed to notify DOS of lawsuit,” a State Department analyst wrote in the case management system.
The company now denies endangering Conrad. “Please be advised the reported ‘au pair’ was not a State Department au pair program participant and not a USAuPair program participant,” a representative of the company, who did not identify themselves, wrote in response to questions. “There was no concealment.”
But Conrad’s lawsuit documents her involvement with the company. The au pair went through “a 2-month process that included meetings with the defendants’ partner in Germany, Munich Au Pair,” wrote Courthouse News Service, a legal trade publication, summarizing the case. According to the au pair, USAuPair CEO Helene Young told her “she had found a wonderful family” that “had passed an extensive background check.” And at the time, Young didn’t deny that Conrad had been associated with the company, only that she had deliberately placed the au pair in danger. “Anyone who knows me and my organization knows that what is being said is not true,” Young told the Willamette Week.
USAuPair did not respond to follow-up questions.
Beyond eventually removing au pairs, it doesn’t appear that the government has taken any action against au pair companies for allegedly failing to report allegations of misconduct.
“We do not comment on individual cases,” a State Department spokesperson said. “The Department of State monitors sponsor agencies’ programs for compliance with Department of State regulations, and we take very seriously any report submitted to us concerning the health, safety, or welfare of exchange participants.”
But it doesn’t appear that the government took action in these cases, or many others.
The State Department has a formal sanction process for corporate misconduct and can suspend or bar companies from the program, along with offering reprimands or guidance.
Outside of issuing unspecified lesser sanctions to one company in 2019, the State Department hasn’t officially sanctioned any au pair companies since 2006, according to a department spokesperson.
Although the State Department has the authority to punish au pair companies that break the rules, its investigations rarely result “in meaningful consequences for a delinquent sponsor,” a 2012 State Department Inspector General report on the J-1 visa program concluded. There’s little evidence to suggest that has improved in the last eight years.
Instead of punishments, the government prefers to mediate between companies and au pairs during complaints by exposing au pairs’ complaints to their employers, which risks causing retaliation. “In most instances, the Department is able to resolve problems identified through monitoring activities by working directly with sponsor agencies,” the State Department spokesperson said.
‘If The Numbers Were Zero, It Would Obviously Be A Lie’
Au pairs are supposed to work no more than 45 hours a week and 10 hours a day, and regulations require au pair companies to report any violations to the State Department. According to data reported by au pair companies, host families are largely following these rules. But many au pairs and former company employees say that data is questionable at best.
Roughly 40,000 au pairs were employed in the U.S. at some point in 2016, the only year for which a nearly full dataset was disclosed. (In records released as part of the FOIA lawsuit, the State Department withheld the majority of data from other years, as a trade secret, and also withheld data from one mid-sized company, Expert Au Pair, in 2016.) From those au pairs, the companies reported only 40 complaints about au pairs being forced to work more than the regulatory limit that year.
“I’ve definitely spoken to at least half as many as they’ve reported who claim they work too many hours, and I was only covering the phones an hour or two a day.”
Cultural Care, which represents slightly less than half the program, reported 21 cases of au pairs working extra hours. Other large companies, AuPairCare and Au Pair in America, reported 15 and four cases, respectively.
“I don’t believe in these numbers,” said Amanda Fernandes, a former AuPairCare au pair from Brazil. When she reported being told to work extra hours in 2016, she said a company representative accused her of lying. “They exist only because if the numbers were zero, it would obviously be a lie.”
Former au pair company employees also questioned the reported figures. “I’ve definitely spoken to at least half as many as they’ve reported who claim they work too many hours, and I was only covering the phones an hour or two a day,” said Patrick Parhiala, a former Cultural Care accounts coordinator who handled complaints in 2016.
During 2017 and 2018, the Government Accountability Project surveyed 125 au pairs, the majority of whom had been working in that capacity in 2016. Of this sample, 83 au pairs said they regularly worked overtime, and many said they had reported it to their companies. Of the au pairs interviewed in 2016, more au pairs from Cultural Care and Au Pair in America alleged reporting working over hour limits to their companies than the companies themselves reported to the government.
“In most cases, we proactively submit reports, while in some instances, we respond to a call or complaint that the State Department has received directly,” a Cultural Care spokesperson said, adding that the company was in contact with the State Department every day. “In either case, we act swiftly, compassionately, and in strict adherence to our regulatory obligations.”
Au Pair in America also said they took allegations seriously. “Through monthly or more frequent contact with a local community counselor, a 24/7 emergency line and the Department of State’s own direct hotline, au pairs are encouraged to bring forth any issues or concerns with their host family placements,” the company said.
Fourteen au pairs from AuPairCare said they reported working extra hours ― just one less than the company’s supposed total. Jeanne Datrino is among them. She said she was kicked out of her host’s house on a freezing winter night because she was sick and had refused to work extra. She said the representative from AuPairCare called her “lazy.” AuPairCare did not respond to requests for comment.
Beyond the three big au pair companies, 11 other companies reported they didn’t have a single complaint from an au pair about work hours in 2016. Au pairs from several companies disputed that.
For example, an au pair from GoAuPair said that when she complained about working extra, a company representative told her to ask her host what she was “doing wrong.” GoAuPair’s Kepler didn’t address reporting issues, but information he provided to address a different case confirmed the company was aware of at least one unreported extra work complaint that year, despite not reporting it to the government.
In September 2016, a concerned third party emailed the State Department alleging that a GoAuPair employee had threatened an au pair with deportation and “harm to her family abroad” because she refused to work for a host who admitted that their child was likely to harm her. Kepler said this issue occurred because the au pair refused to return home, and instead tried to change her visa when she was unable to find a new family to work for. “I would not classify this as abuse but rather mutually missed expectations on both parties that could have been prevented,” Kepler said.
But case notes Kepler provided said the au pair reported “working more than 10 hours per day,” a violation of program regulations. “Extra hours was an issue reported by the au pair in month 3 and this was addressed & resolved the same month with the host family and the au pair,” Kepler said. “Additional hours was not reported again.”
Despite evidence that some companies didn’t report allegations of extra work properly, the program’s advocates downplayed complaints. “If you were able to speak with about 125 au pairs who participated in the program, that is only .01% of the total 100,000 au pairs who participated in the last five years,” EurekaFacts, a surveying company hired by the Alliance for International Exchange to produce reports about J-1 programs, said in a statement facilitated by the lobbying group. “That is not a big enough sample to draw conclusions about the program as a whole.”
Of course, the sample of au pairs interviewed for this article isn’t a scientific study, and can’t provide an estimate of the total number of au pairs working extra hours in the program. But it is enough to show that the numbers some companies reported to the government are inaccurate. And the reported numbers were disproven by interviewing what EurekaFacts pointed out is only a tiny fraction of the au pairs in the program, which makes this situation worse.
Unreported Claims Of Assault
Beyond labor rights violations, former au pairs said they reported physical, sexual and verbal abuse, food deprivation and threats of deportation to the companies. However, many of those allegations are not included in data the companies reported to the State Department either.
One Cultural Care au pair, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the family and the company, said the father in her host family sexually harassed and assaulted her. After offering a massage for an injury, he “tried to grab my breasts,” she said. Later, he cornered her in a bathroom and asked her to send him nude photos, she said.
When she told Cultural Care, she said she was informed that previous au pairs had accused the same man of sexual abuse. “I found out that I was the third au pair that this happened to,” she said.
Two other au pairs also said they had reported sexual harassment and abuse to their contracting company in 2016 but their allegations were not included in the reports to State.
State Department documents also suggest the government should have asked more questions. Every year, the State Department receives dozens of complaints from au pairs and third parties about issues including sexual abuse, and it’s unlikely that au pairs reported these issues to the government directly while reporting almost nothing to their companies.
“They threatened to take my passport or keep some of my valuables as insurance of payment if I wasn’t willing or able to pay them immediately.”
Ten au pairs interviewed for this article said they had reported to their companies that they’d sustained physical injuries on the job, either by a child or a host parent, in 2016. This doesn’t include Castillo and another seven au pairs who told the HuffPost they were injured during other years. Others told HuffPost they’d reported threats and extortion to their companies.
Audrey Fleurot, a French au pair who was with Cultural Care in 2016, said her host family controlled her ability to leave the house and what she could eat. When she tried to quit, they first threatened her with physical violence, which she reported to the company and provided emails to document.
During an exit interview, she said her hosts told her they’d hold her passport hostage unless she repaid a portion of the family’s program fees.
“They threatened to take my passport or keep some of my valuables as insurance of payment if I wasn’t willing or able to pay them immediately,” Fleurot wrote to a Cultural Care director, forwarding emails from her former host family that broke down the amount of money they expected her to pay. She said a Cultural Care employee, who attended the exit meeting where the family threatened her, did not intervene on her behalf. But she was so eager to get out of the situation that she just paid it.
“I made a wire transfer to the father immediately,” Fleurot wrote in an email to Cultural Care, which HuffPost reviewed.
Government records may not include the specific allegations of these cases, but company employees interviewed for this story said they kept meticulous records of interactions with au pairs, and that their corporate offices had access to the data.
“Obviously, if something goes bad, we, as the area director, want to be able to say, ‘Hey, I took these steps,’” said a former AuPairCare employee.
Code Words, Red Flags
Companies may not report every complaint to the State Department, but they are required to acknowledge every time an au pair leaves or is removed from a host family. In the 2016 dataset, 4,620 au pairs found new hosts before their period of service was supposed to be completed, and 4,167 quit the program early. (There is likely some overlap between those two groups, because some au pairs who change families may later quit.)
The details of some of those early departures offer a glimpse of how some problems may actually be lurking behind innocuous-sounding labels. Companies will code the reasons for departure using vague terms like “personality conflicts” ― 792 times in 2016 ― and “personal reasons” ― 1,292 times in 2016. Homesickness, another vague complaint, was used 978 times.
“Au pair no longer wants to be one,” was cited 379 times.
Companies provided no further details most of the time, but the instances in which they did raise questions about the integrity of that labelling system.
“The host dad is verbally abusive towards the au pair,” said one March 2016 note, explaining that an au pair from an unidentified company “self terminated” from the program because of a “personality conflict.” Another December 2016 report alleged that a host father had “sent suggestive texts” to an au pair, which was also classified as a “personality conflict.”
A 2015 case from Au Pair in America was originally labeled as “incompatibility with host family,” but in this situation, the au pair complained directly to the State Department about abuse. The department followed up and learned the company was aware that the hosts’ children had allegedly beat the au pair, and at one point she had been forced to live out of a car.
A Google template, used by Cultural Care employees to record why au pairs changed families, shows how companies have systematized this language. While the survey included options for reporting problems with au pair driving skills and illnesses, none of the options for au pairs listed common forms of abuse.
Reporting something like an au pair working extra hours would merely be classified as “other.”
Au Pairs Organizing Online
Au pairs have built their own communities on Facebook and YouTube to protect themselves and others. In groups mostly organized by nationality, they share private lists of host families they claim have creepy fathers, forced overtime, secret cameras and aggressive kids.
But many au pairs question why companies and the State Department don’t seem to be keeping track of these families as well. Often, once one company removes an au pair from a family, the family can turn to a different provider and hire a new au pair.
Mariana Bezerra was a 24-year-old au pair from Brazil hired through Au Pair in America to work for a family in Illinois. In November 2017, she reported to police that her host parents had attacked her and her then-boyfriend when she tried to quit.
According to the police report from the incident, the host mother called Bezerra a “fat bitch” and threatened to send her “back to Brazil.” The report alleges that the host spit on her, threw her to the ground and hit her ― something an employee of Au Pair in America actually witnessed, according to the report, because she had arrived to help Bezerra pack.
The report also states that the host mother allegedly pushed the Au Pair in America employee and that the father hit the au pair’s boyfriend’s car.
The incident took place outside the timeframe of the documents that the State Department released, so it is unclear what Au Pair in America disclosed about it.
But Bezerra’s former host family was apparently able to continue to hire au pairs, even after the mother pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery on Aug. 1, 2018. Twelve days later, she posted on Facebook that she had hired a new au pair. The family did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
A Powerful Lobbying Group
For decades, au pair companies have fought off most attempts to further regulate the program through an aggressive lobbying operation, including the Alliance for International Exchange, with the support of thousands of parents who rely on the program for affordable child care.
“The au pair lobby on Capitol Hill is very strong,” said one Democratic Senate aide, who requested anonymity because they weren’t cleared to speak to the media. “We see these stories of abuse and exploitation and everyone knows we need to reform the program, but the political influence of wealthy donors with au pairs is very difficult to take on.”
Au pair lobbying groups are pushing for legislation in Massachusetts that would undo the court decision on state minimum wage and have even pushed the State Department to overrule it as well. In May, the Trump administration proposed a new program rule that would do exactly that.
“We are all frustrated by the lobbying influence of the sponsors,” said one State Department employee who is involved with the J-1 program and asked to remain anonymous because they were not cleared to speak to journalists. The employee acknowledged constant conversations about reform inside the government. “But we canʼt really touch them because they have Congress and ace lawyers in their court,” the employee said.
Some State employees admit that a major reason the program is so poorly regulated is that it lacks sufficient staff.
The program “had become too large with not enough oversight to keep up with the 300K+ participants coming to the U.S. every year,” said one former State Department employee. The J-1 program also includes teachers, interns and researchers ― and the program has only about 100 employees dedicated to its administrative work.
A review of a recent State Department directory reveals that only about a dozen of those employees handle compliance, and the au pair program itself only had a single specifically designated analyst. Trump administration hiring freezes have also contributed to staff attrition, said one State Department source.
Advocates for better treatment of au pairs say oversight should be transferred to the Department of Labor, and that it should be treated as a work program, not a cultural exchange. “The State Department’s mischaracterization of the program as a cultural exchange enables sponsors and host families to abuse au pairs,” said Rachel Micah-Jones, executive director of the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, a migrant workers rights group.
Last month, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante filed a lawsuit against AuPairCare and the former hosts of two au pairs alleging hour violations, unpaid wages, verbal abuse and threats of deportation.
Bezerra, the Brazillian au pair, who is now a student in New York City, said reforming the program is now more important than ever, as COVID-19 has put more stress on both child care needs and vulnerable international visitors.
“With the whole pandemic going on, families are abusing them a little extra these days,” said Bezerra, who remains in touch with a number of au pairs. “The program has never been so fragile.”
Founded in 1977, Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, Government Accountability Project’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Government Accountability Project began investigating the au pair program after au pairs and au pair company employees blew the whistle on a cover-up of abuse in the program.