The following guidelines provide a framework in which to interpret various legal issues that may arise.
- Do not speak directly with any outside lawyers; advise students not to give statements to the police without prior advice from legal counsel.
- If you are contacted by an outside lawyer on an AFS-related matter, please take his/her number and give this information to your Participant Support Specialist or the AFS-USA Duty Officer immediately
- The national office will forward the information to the AFS lawyer who will return the call
AFS' Legal Responsibility
- AFS can be held responsible for a volunteer's action, as long as the volunteer acts within the scope of his or her duties.
- AFS volunteers are expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the AFS Volunteer Agreement and Policies.
- AFS is not legally responsible for the acts of participants.
- AFS must adhere to the U.S. Department of State J-1 Exchange Visitor Program - Secondary School Student regulations
- All participants are subject to the laws of the host state/country.
Host Family Legal Responsibility
- Host families are NOT the legal guardians of the participants they host, nor are they legally responsible for their acts.
- The host family-participant relationship is a "host-guest" relationship. This means that host families are expected to give due care to participants, but are not legally responsible for them.
- Natural families always have the final say with respect to decisions affecting their children in terms of legal representation or lawsuits.
- If schools or any other agencies require parent or legal guardian signatures on any document, natural families must sign for the participant. Host families cannot sign any document as the legal guardian or parent of the participant. Any discussion about host family/participant responsibility beyond this guideline should be referred to the appropriate staff who can then refer it to the AFS lawyer as needed. For more information, see Activity Waivers.
- If a natural family of a participant hosted in the United States decides to request a refund or to sue AFS, their legal action would be taken against the partner country that sent the participant on program. In cases like these, our partners depend on us to be able to supply them with well documented, objective, and consistent information from the participant’s file showing how the case unfolded and what actions were taken at each step of the way. For participants we send abroad the same is true in reverse.
- All communication written for a participant’s file should be simple, professional, clear, and specific. There should be no judgment or personal comments included - only the facts. It is important to remember that all documentation can be used and will be subject to production if a legal action arises.
- Special note on E-mail as Legal Evidence: E-mail messages, like any paper document, can be used as legal evidence in litigation and can be required to be produced when a legal action arises. It is important to exercise good judgment when exchanging E-mail within AFS and with people outside the organization. Also, AFS cannot control information sent by E-mail once it has been sent, and messages may be forwarded or sent to unintended recipients. Since it may be possible for unintended recipients to read E-mail messages all comments and materials that may be considered harmful or embarrassing to others should not be sent via E-mail.
- A good practice is to carefully review all messages before sending them. While reviewing the message, imagine that everyone involved is also receiving the message. If this would cause significant problems, perhaps a telephone call or a re-worded message would be a better approach.
If Someone Threatens to Sue AFS
- There may be times when a natural parent, host family, volunteer or participant threatens to sue or take legal action against AFS, whether warranted or not. If this threat comes to you in writing, send it to your Participant Support Specialist.
- Often a caller is very angry and upset and threatens legal action on the phone. Do not try to defend AFS. Listen to the complaint, write down notes from the conversation, and if need be ask the caller to send complaints in writing to the Participant Support Specialist. Advise your Participant Support Specialist of such conversations so they may be prepared for a call or letter.
Requests for Refunds
- If a natural family or participant calls or writes to you requesting a refund, refer them to the Participant Support Specialist. All requests for refunds must be submitted in writing.
- When a Participant Support Manager receives a request for a refund, he/she will do a review of the participant’s file and it may be necessary for Support staff to contact volunteers who worked with a given participant to further clarify aspects of his or her experience.
Bank Accounts and Cell Phones
- Participants should be encouraged to open their OWN bank accounts
- Host families and participants sharing bank accounts should be avoided
- Students should be encouraged to get a pay-as-you-go phone not be put on their host family's cell phone plan. This can prevent a lot of issues with the host family paying for too many calls or texts.