JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Boarding schools in Missouri are closer to becoming regulated after lawmakers continue to hear from former students who suffered alleged abuse.
Last month, the House unanimously passed House Bill 557, which would require background checks for employees at boarding schools. Currently, under state law, reform schools in Missouri are not required to be licensed.
Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, and Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, are the sponsors of the bill. They filed the legislation after former students reported abuse at the Circle of Hope’s Girls’ Ranch in Cedar County.
“I refer to it as a gaping hole in our child welfare code where our child abuse laws and our criminal codes were not applied to these specific situations,” Ingle said. “An exemption to this type of facility with a religious waiver and that there was absolutely no oversight.”
The Attorney General’s Office is currently investigating Agape Boarding School and Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch. Last month, husband and wife, 71-year-old Boyd and 55-year-old Stephanie Householder, owners of Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, were charged with more than 100 crimes of abuse and neglect of a child, rape, sodomy and endangering the welfare of a child. Attorney General Eric Schmitt called it one of the worst mental, sexual and physical abuse cases in the state’s history. So far, Schmitt said 16 victims have come forward.
“We know that some of these children are not at some of these homes because they were perfect angels, we know they have issues, and we believe that spirituality of these programs allows a lot of them to see a different way of life,” Viet said.
During a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, former students begged lawmakers to get the legislation to the finish line.
“Please get some rules in place and get these kids out,” Emily Adams said.
Joseph Askins flew in from Pennsylvania to testify to Senators about his time in a Missouri boarding school.
“Imagine if one of your kids had an issue and it was a last resort, these places need to stand, they need to stay open for people of last resort, but they need to be run through a strict, regimented routine,” Askins said. “I know animals that are treated better than the students at Agape.”
The legislation would notify the state these boarding schools exist and require the schools to do background checks.
“You will note that throughout this bill, I’m not asking anybody to do anything that a good businessman or woman wouldn’t do,” Veit said. “This bill is not designed to put any of them out of business; it’s designed to enable the good operations to stay in business.”
Those that testified in favor of the legislation Wednesday said they want lawmakers to regulate these unlicensed schools.
“Almost 40 years later, I still have night terror, PTSD and anxiety,” Barb Patterson, a former student of a reform school, testified. “The trauma in my childhood carried through my adulthood.”
Allen Knoll is also a former student of a reform school; he also has PTSD to this day.
“I’ve had pit bulls stuck on me, I’ve been held underwater, I’ve watched people be drowned and resuscitated,” Knoll said.
One person spoke in opposition of the bill during the hearing, saying it wasn’t tough enough. The legislation was not passed out of the committee Wednesday, but once it is, it will need approval from the full Senate.
Missouri is only one of two states that do not have oversight of religious boarding schools.