The American Field Service (AFS) is facing a possible lawsuit in a shocking case of alleged abuse and negligence. Maine teenager
Jonathan McCullum lost 60 pounds while placed with a family in Egypt. When he returned he was so weak that he had difficulty carrying his luggage and had to be hospitalized . AFS has refused to comment and referred inquiries to a lawyer who has also refused to comment. This could present some novel tort issues, but it appears that AFS has much to answer for.
When McCullum left for Eygpt, he weighed a healthy 155 pounds. He returned in skeletal shape at 97 pounds. He was in such bad shape that doctors believed that he was at risk of a heart attack.
AFS assures students and parents that the host families will feed students and that it will monitor conditions. Click here Yet, McCullum was in such bad shape that teachers wrote his parents raising alarm over his situation.
That situation appears bizarre. AFS placed him with a Coptic Christian family that follows strict religious fasting rules for more than 200 days a year. However, McCullum has said that the family was simply cruel and that the only reason he did not demand new quarters is that he was told AFS would place him in a dangerous area for Americans. As a result, he reduced at one point to stealing food.
What he did receive was meager:
McCullum said he never got breakfast and his first food of the day usually was a small piece of bread with cucumbers and cheese that he would take to school for lunch. Dinner consisted of beans, vegetables and sometimes fish.
The most implausible reaction was from the host father, Shaker Hanna, who insisted that McCullum stuffed himself despite the fact that he was less than 100 pounds upon his return. He called the allegation a “lie” and said that the Americans were after their money back: “The truth is, the boy we hosted for nearly six months was eating for an hour and a half at every meal. The amount of food he ate at each meal was equal to six people.”
It is doubtful that Hanna would face a lawsuit, which would likely have to be occur in Egypt. AFS is a different matter. The organization can be charged with both direct negligence and vicarious liability for the case. McCullum’s failure to tell his parents or seek a change would be the critical issue at trial. However, his belief that he would be placed in a dangerous neighborhood could rebut such charges. Moreover, it is astonishing that a boy could lose 90 pounds and be in such an obviously abused condition without AFS noting the problem or taking action.
For its part, AFS seems to be treating the matter as purely one for the lawyers and blissfully continuing to recruit new students. AFS lawyers could at least start by expressing some concern for the boy and note that an investigation will be carried out — rather than say that no comment is appropriate in light of possible litigation. The no comment response is a textbook mistake in such cases. Presumably, AFS wants to recruit other families. One can express concern and take public measures without losing any defenses.
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