Missouri and South Carolina are the only states in the nation that do not regulate faith-based boarding schools for youth. The secret is out and several of these schools have packed up and moved to Missouri to carry on their business of alleged neglect as well as sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of students.
After an investigation by The Kansas City Star, the accusations have caught the attention of two state lawmakers. Representatives Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, and Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, have filed legislation that could keep tabs on youth residential homes, including faith-based ones.
The allegations have even made their way to Dateline NBC. The television show will air a segment tonight at 9 p.m. CST about the legislative effort.
During a House committee hearing Wednesday about the bills, former students from across the country talked about getting beaten and being starved. Some said they were restrained for hours and others said they were put in isolation for days or even months. They recounted some students getting forced to eat their own vomit.
Colton Schrag says he was physically abused and barely fed while living at Agape Boarding School in southwest Missouri’s Stockton.
“I don’t know how a kid has not died in your state in these schools that exist because I can list three schools – Masters Ranch, Legacy Boys Academy, Agape Boarding School, Circle of Hope – where I was abused by all four of those staff members that worked at Agape and eventually left and started their own school here,” he says. “In the state of Missouri at Agape Boarding School, there is 165 students that woke up an hour ago that are forced to stand on the wall, eat cereal while other kids are eating pancakes, they’re forced to physical workouts until they puke. They may even be getting restrained as we speak. The restraints at Agape Boarding School result in kids getting picked up over the head and slammed into walls. I’ve seen kids put through walls. I’ve been put through a wall. Kids are getting slammed on tile, concrete, and asphalt.”
Allen Knoll also attended Agape from ages 13 to 15.
“I was that boy standing on the wall. I was that boy restrained for two months straight – every single day. That was me because sometimes I didn’t want to go to church,” he says. “This cannot be the end – this can be the start. I am adamantly opposed to regulating religious programs and I really do believe strongly that they should have a separation of state and church. But I also believe in the civil rights of these children. I do want to say that the abuse and the trauma that I went through had a tremendous impact on my life. I made terrible, poor decisions. I suffered from depression, anxiety. I still suffer from those things. I have learned to deal with them. Through all the things of not learning how to live properly and being forced and beaten in these programs, I didn’t make the best choices. This state failed me. The state of Mississippi failed me. I’m still here today. I’m being that voice. Let’s not let somebody else come up here in ten years and have to say, ‘Why did you fail me.’”
Emily Adams says she had attended the Bethesda Home for Girls in the state of Mississippi for about 17 months.
“My abusers were closed down a year after I left,” she says. “The Bethesda Home for Girls was raided by the FBI and finally shut down. Guess where they came y’all? They came here. They opened up Mountain Park in Patterson. So can you please, please, please help the kids now. No more survivors. No more, please.”
Amanda O’Brien says her parents opened the Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in southwest Missouri’s Humansville. She says she was forced to restrain her friends for hours and some girls did not leave after they became adults.
“They were told if you left, the people in the town would either shoot you for being on their property because of the law in Missouri, shoot first ask questions later, or they were told that animals would get them, or they were told that they would just be prostitutes,” says O’Brien.
She recalls one girl with a mental disability was there for 13 years. The victim left last year – at the age of 30.
O’Brien was kicked out when she was seventeen years old.
Shelva Thomas-Jackson says she paid $42,000 for her son to attend Masters Ranch Christian Academy in southern Missouri’s Couch.
“Every day, I fight for him not to give up because I refuse for him to be a statistic and let David Bosley and Masters Ranch or any other of these places get away with hurting kids. I have been hurt and know what it’s like to be sexually abused and be hurt by people you trust. Hurt people hurt people,” she says. “And if you don’t stop it, if nothing changes, nothing is ever going to change and you are going to have recidivism everywhere. Do something, please!”
These schools can be hard to find because they are often located in the middle of nowhere. Under the legislation, they must notify the state of their existence, and provide medical records for all residents. It would require background checks for all employees and volunteers. The schools would have to undergo certain safety inspections.
“There’s not one thing we’re asking them to do that a good business person would not do,” says Representative Viet. “I don’t care if you are a religious facility or not – you would do these things. So right now, we are the go-to place if you want to run a facility, unregulated, and do unreligious type activity.”
In cases of suspected abuse or neglect or failure to comply with regulations, the state could request an injunction or restraining order to stop operations or remove children from the site. The bills would not allow the state to go in and mess with any religious curriculum the schools might offer.
“We are both strong proponents of faith and faith has the power to change people. But faith can’t be used as an excuse to abuse and neglect children. They were absolutely neglected and abused in every way. There was no one looking out for them,” says Representative Ingle. “Oftentimes, they would run away. When they engaged with law enforcement, law enforcement would take them back to facilities where facilitators would say, ‘Well, these children are liars. This didn’t really happen. They are bad kids.’ I’m here to tell you in my professional experience that when you label a kid as troubled or bad, people tend to not believe them, which makes them even more likely to be victimized. The state has absolutely zero way of knowing these facilities are in existence. I could have one of these facilities in my basement with unlimited children right now with zero regulation from the state – at all. We don’t know about the existence of these facilities until unfortunately something bad happens.”
Ingle has a long history in the child welfare system.
Jessica Seitz with Missouri KidsFirst, a state network of child advocacy centers, says the legislation is long overdue.
“This legislation would help us know where these facilities are, be able to check on kids, and if necessary, shut them down. We’ve got to protect children and ensure our state is not a hospitable place for predators,” Seitz says.
Kelly Schultz, director of the Missouri Office of Child Advocate, says calls the legislation “notification”, not licensure.
“This is state versus people hurting kids and giving us the bare minimum of what we need to do to protect children in the state of Missouri,” she says. “I read cases all day long. I talk about child abuse, neglect, and fatalities all day long. I’m usually not the butterfly when I come in and testify. I’m not warm and fuzzy in this committee. It turns my stomach to see what I read and I think the only thing that turns my stomach even more is somebody doing this in the name of God because not only do we have trauma and abuse and neglect, but that threatens to separate a child from God for eternity.”
Rep. Brenda Shields, R-St. Joseph, questioned if background checks on some of these operators would have yielded any criminal history.
“It is also a check of the Family Care Safety Registry. One of the places that was specifically stated today and has been reported in the press by The Kansas City Star, the individual had four preponderance of evidence findings, which would have placed them on the Family Care Safety Registry. So, that would have been caught,” says Schultz.
Emily van Schenkhof, executive director at Missouri Children’s Trust Fund, says the hearing was probably one of the most painful hearings she has listened to.
“The stories today have just broken my heart and have left me feeling embarrassed and ashamed of our state that we did not correct these problems much earlier. It also makes me feel embarrassment and shame that I did not know that these issues were going on as a child advocate,” she says. “As someone who has done my job as long as I have, I feel like I should have known that this was occurring and that I should have asked you all to fix these problems many years ago. I have a great deal of sadness in my heart right now because this is egregious that this has gone on this long and I echo just the sympathies of everyone that, for the folks in this audience, for what they went through, and for the failure of our state.”
Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman, who chairs the House Children and Families Committee, questioned where the breakdown is happening after a call has been made to the Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline.
“I am just deeply upset that not only the unknown cases but the known cases were not acted upon,” she says. “When you have failure after failure about actually reported cases, and you have dedicated your life to doing this work has missed it, and I who care deeply about these issues has missed it.”
“In my work, what I really know and what I have seen over and over again is that there are bad actors and predators out there and there are evil people in this world. They want access to our children and it is our job as advocates and as lawmakers to put up really strong barriers between bad actors and evil doers,” says Van Schenkhof. “We want to make it as hard as possible to get to our children because we do know that the harder you make it for people to get to kids, the less likely abuse is to occur. What we have done with the laws that we have right now is we have basically a wire cutter. We’ve taken out the wire cutter and we have cut a giant chink in the fence that protects our kids. We have let evil doers and wrong doers come through this fence and hurt our kids. It is an invitation to predators. For far too long, we have silenced and discounted and ignored the voices of survivors and the voices of children. It is my deep hope that we have the courage to hear the people who came before me today and to make this change that absolutely I believe we are now compelled to make.”
Coleman, R-Arnold, believes if state law was followed appropriately, the children should have been protected.
“Because a child is abused by a person and we had credible accusations against individuals and we didn’t act. Let’s say we pass this and the governor signs it, what prevents failures in this system,” Coleman asks.
Van Schenkhof says no system is perfect.
“I think this bill would make a tremendous difference because we would have these places identified,” she says. “I’m not sure that I agree with you that this wouldn’t be enough. We have become a beacon for these homes. Just by putting up these barriers and putting these basic regulations in place, we will be less attractive for places to come here. I think that in of itself is a big change. I do think that other states that have done this have protected – they have healed that hole in the fence. There are lots of cases of child abuse that are never prosecuted, where the case goes from law enforcement to the prosecutor and the prosecutor decides not to take the case forward. I have seen egregious, egregious cases of child sexual abuse that prosecutors decide not to take to trial.”
Caitlin Whaley, of the Missouri Department of Social Services, says there is no ability on the Children’s Division part to force the operator to show a child who has allegedly been abused.
“That’s been a pain point for a long time. Even if we are able to see a child, there are standards that we have to meet to make findings,” says Whaley. “If you have children who are fearful that they’re going to be sent back to these facilities, you see a lot of instances where children might recant their stories. Even if they don’t recant, if we don’t have any physical evidence, it’s very difficult to oftentimes substantiate physical and sexual abuse findings if disclosures are not made immediately. And if you can’t see kids, you also can’t collect physical evidence. Even if you make a finding, there is no repercussions. There are a lot of systemic breakdowns happening that are cumulatively resulting in children being abused.”
Representative Dotty Bailey, R-Eureka, says abuse is abuse.
“I may not be able to see the hotline numbers, but I can certainly subpoena them through the House Speaker’s office. Here’s my problem, you’re going to push it back on the Legislature – it’s our fault. I’m calling you out on that. If you knew this was going on, somebody from your department should have come to one of legislators or senators and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem we need to investigate.’ Not only is our job writing laws but it’s also investigating. I’m sitting up here a little steamed because I’m realizing the state has known about this but it takes The Kansas City Star to bring it to our attention. And now, it’s the Legislature’s fault because we haven’t changed the law. Bull! You all knew, and you never came to anybody. This has gone on I don’t know how many years. We will get the law changed but I will try for a subpoena and get that information. I’m sick of the departments in this state saying, ‘Sorry, we can’t be held accountable’. Just, ridiculous. And the egregious things that are happening to these people, somebody needs to be accountable for it. Yeah, it’s egg on our face because we haven’t changed the law. If you all knew about this and didn’t come to any of us – there’s 163 in the House and thirty-something in the Senate, God knows you could find somebody like me that will dig and dig and get every subpoena I need to find out what’s going on.”
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