Mon. Jul 26th, 2021

Missouri state agencies have gained more oversight authority over private facilities for troubled teens under a new law written in response to former students’ complaints of abuse.

The law, signed Wednesday by Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, was drafted after women who had been placed at Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch in rural Missouri as teens came forward with allegations that they’d been hit, restrained, starved and sexually abused at the unregulated facility.

Amanda Householder, whose parents ran Circle of Hope, began discussing abuse she said she witnessed at the ranch in a series of TikTok videos in May 2020. She became an advocate for stricter state regulations for religious boarding schools like Circle of Hope.

“I truly didn’t think we’d have laws changed, especially not in a year’s time,” Householder, 29, said shortly before the bill was signed. “I can’t describe the feelings I’m having in my heart right now — I am just crying.”

Under the new law, which takes effect immediately, private residential care facilities like Circle of Hope can remain unlicensed, but they now have to notify the Missouri Department of Social Services that they exist, and all employees and volunteers have to undergo background checks. The law also gives the Department of Social Services increased authority to investigate abuse allegations at the facilities and charts a path for the agency to petition courts to remove children based on safety concerns. Additionally, the facilities have to pass fire and health department inspections.

Previously, there were no state requirements placed on Circle of Hope because it operated as a private religious boarding school, and took no state or federal money.

“It is necessary legislation not only to protect the vulnerable children that are placed in these facilities but also the parents who entrust their children to these facilities,” said state Rep. Rudy Veit, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill with state Rep. Keri Ingle, a Democrat.

Amanda Householder in a family portrait with her parents, Boyd and Stephanie Householder, who founded Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch in Missouri.Courtesy of Amanda Householder

An NBC News investigation last year found that adolescents and their parents had complained about Circle of Hope to multiple law enforcement agencies, the state’s education and social services departments and the state attorney general’s office on numerous occasions as far back as 2006, the year the ranch opened. Although Missouri’s social services department made at least four findings of abuse or neglect occurring at the ranch, state agencies said they had no ability to force the facility to close or to warn the public about potential dangers.

It wasn’t until Amanda Householder’s TikTok videos that local law enforcement and state officials launched an investigation, culminating in March with the Missouri attorney general’s office announcing 101 felony charges against Boyd and Stephanie Householder, the ranch’s owners and Amanda’s parents, relating to allegations of child molestation, abuse and neglect. Both have pleaded not guilty, and their lawyer has said they’re “very religious people, they’re very good people.”

After lawmakers vowed action in September 2020 to close the loopholes that gave Circle of Hope free rein, men who had been placed at Agapé Boarding School — another unregulated facility in the state — came forward to allege they had also been abused. The state highway patrol is currently investigating these allegations, which the school has refused to address publicly.

Colton Schrag, 28, who attended Agapé and testified this year before the Missouri Legislature in favor of the bill, said he’s glad officials responded to the pleas for change.

“For years, Missouri has dropped the ball when it comes to unlicensed boarding schools in their state,” Schrag said. “But today that has changed. It makes what I went through worth it knowing we will help save other kids from abuse in these schools.”

Similar gaps in oversight of religious boarding schools remain in over a dozen states.

An investigation by NBC News and “Dateline” found that privately owned or privately funded boarding schools are exempt from licensing requirements by education and child welfare agencies in 16 other states. Additionally, in 23 states, religious boarding schools do not have to tell their state education department that they exist.