JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Lawmakers are trying to get a better understanding of how the Department of Social Services investigates abuse at boarding schools, like the Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch in southwest Missouri.
During a two-hour committee hearing Wednesday, the department testified in front of House members explaining the difference between unlicensed and licensed facilities.
Two weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced the couple who owned and operated the Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch in Cedar County were charged with more than 100 felonies.
So far, 16 victims have come forward.
“That’s what’s concerning and a little scary and I can see how we’ve gotten here and with hundreds of kids being abused so that’s something we need to change,” Rep. Dottie Bailey, (R-Eureka) said.
Currently in Missouri, reform schools are not required to be licensed in Missouri.
“There are basically provisions around what facilities are licensed facilities and there are exemptions in statute and Circle of Hope is one of those exemptions,” Acting Director of DSS Jennifer Tidball told lawmakers.
Lawmakers requested the department to testify at the Special Committee on Government Oversight Wednesday to explain what needs to be done to protect children at boarding schools.
“It’s a licensed residential facility, a contract facility, there are requirements that we can walk into that facility and have eyes on the kids, be able to walk through the facility,” Tidball said.
“An unlicensed or license-exempt facility, we don’t have that ability to have a spontaneous interaction or be able to talk with the child,” General Counsel for DSS Sharie Hahn said.
Tidball said the only way an investigation starts in an unlicensed facility is through the department’s Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline.
“We have to be made aware through the hotline that there is concern of abuse and neglect at one of these facilities,” Tidball said. “We have a special unit called the ‘out of home investigations unit’ that would investigate all children’s residential.”
Representatives stressed their frustration to DSS about children being abused and neglected at reform schools in Missouri.
“Even if the statutory exemption limited the department’s ability to act, it’s puzzling as to why the department never came to the legislature and asked to help in changing the law,” Rep. Jered Taylor, (R-Republic) said. “Legislative colleagues and I only became aware of the situation when we read about it in the news.”
“We have to change that statute, dear goodness, we need to do so because I think that would give us even a bigger picture of what’s gone on in the past,” Bailey said. “We’ve all kind of dropped the ball with these homes.”
Schmitt’s office is investigating two boarding schools in Missouri currently, a Christian boys’ reform school in Stockton called Agape Boarding School and the Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch.
Earlier in March, Schmitt said 71-year-old Boyd and 55-year-old Stephanie Householder face charges of abuse and neglect of a child, rape, sodomy, and endangering the welfare of a child.
There are 102 charges between the two.
“When we go into an unlicensed facility, even those there are requirements for eyes on the child,” Tidball said. “It’s very difficult for that provider or the provider will not present that child in a timely manner.”
She said when visiting or investigating an unlicensed facility, the department is not allowed to interview other children in the facility as a witness.
Tidball told the committee Wednesday that starting in November, the department started following up in every call that comes into the hotline from licensed or unlicensed facilities.
Previously, it was only after three calls in one year the department started an investigation.
“We would investigate every facility and every allegation the same, but for the purposes of treatment, frankly from oversight, it would be different because licensed facilities there are statues and regulations that we have that puts certain requirements around what those facilities have to do to maintain a good standing,” Tidball said.
The House gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill sponsored by Rep. Rudy Veit and Rep. Keri Ingle that would require the state to perform background checks and regulate the unlicensed facilities.
No one opposed the legislation. House Bill 557 needs final approval from the House before going to the Senate.