Christian boarding school sues Missouri to stop new oversight of unlicensed facilities

·6 min read

A Christian boarding school that has fought government scrutiny for decades is suing the Missouri Department of Social Services to keep it from implementing new regulations on unlicensed facilities.

CNS International Ministries, also known as Heartland, filed the lawsuit in federal court last week. Gov. Mike Parson signed the measure into law in July after an emotional outcry from lawmakers, child advocates and former students who said the state desperately needed some oversight of Missouri’s troubled boarding schools.

Heartland is doing what it did nearly 20 years ago, lashing out at what it sees as government overreach of its religious freedom. In 2002-03, the school, its founder Charles Sharpe and backers thwarted all legislative attempts to regulate unlicensed boarding schools.

Now Heartland is taking aim at the three-month-old statute, calling it “contrary to clearly established law.”

“This is not the first time that Heartland has been forced to seek refuge in federal court from an unconstitutional assault by Missouri officials,” the lawsuit says. “And in some instances they (the new law and regulations) require Heartland to violate settled federal statutory requirements guaranteeing privacy to individuals in drug and alcohol recovery programs.”

The suit alleges the new law violates numerous constitutional rights, including restricting Heartland from forming an “association of those who share a common commitment to education, addiction recovery and religious faith.” And it says the statute violates the federal constitutional rights of students, their families and faculty and staff.

A spokeswoman for DSS did not respond to a request for comment.

Sponsored by Reps. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, and Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, the legislation for the first time implements some government oversight over the state’s boarding schools that have operated under the radar for decades. The schools now must notify the state of their existence, conduct background checks on employees and comply with health and safety inspections.

“I think it’s important to remember that anyone can file a lawsuit. That doesn’t mean that the law is on their side,” Ingle told The Star Tuesday. “This is the entity that has fought licensure and regulations of facilities, and as a result we have some bad actors at some facilities that we know have harmed children.”

Veit said he was “surprised and disappointed” at Heartland’s lawsuit.

“They don’t want background checks,” he said. “They don’t want us to interview kids. What do they want us to do?”

During the legislative process, Veit said, lawmakers attempted to address all concerns raised by Heartland. They thought they had.

“History has shown that we cannot leave these types of institutions totally unregulated with the problems we’ve seen in the recent ones and the abuse the children have endured,” he said. “Heartland may be a perfectly great school, great institution, and may do many good things, but we cannot assure that for every entity. And that’s why we need some oversight.”

The 35-page lawsuit was filed Oct. 12 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. It describes Heartland as a Missouri nonprofit corporation with more than 50 employees that provides full-time residential services to men, women and children with behavioral problems or who suffer from alcohol or drug dependencies. The facility also operates a school that serves the children of those in its recovery program, as well as its employees’ children, the suit says.

There are currently five children in the boys’ and girls’ programs at Heartland — four boys and one girl, according to the lawsuit.

“Heartland’s goal happens to be the belief that Jesus is the answer to every issue individuals face — including addiction, anger, broken homes, and financial crises,” the lawsuit says. “Heartland’s vision is a Jesus-centered, sustainable, intentional community of hope for the hurting built around a vibrant local church, cultivating individual, family, community, and global transformation through the power of the gospel.”

Since the summer of 2020, The Star has been investigating faith-based reform schools, which a 1982 law allowed to claim an exemption from Missouri’s licensing requirement.

Because of the lax law, Missouri has become a safe harbor for unlicensed facilities, some which have been investigated or shut down in other states. They often settle in rural and secluded parts of the state where they can operate under the radar.

After reading about Circle of Hope Girls Ranch and allegations of abuse leveled at the owners of the Cedar County boarding school last September, Ingle called for a legislative hearing. The first House hearing was in November.

Dozens of former students of several Missouri schools either testified at legislative hearings or submitted emotional written testimony.

As the bills wound through the legislature during the session, talk turned to Heartland Christian Academy and what happened many years ago. Many said that case, and the lobbying effort surrounding it, was why Missouri hadn’t made a change in the law for decades.

Even Jennifer Tidball — who stepped down as DSS director last week — acknowledged that the Heartland case cast a shadow over attempts to address concerns inside boarding schools.

“The elephant in the room for everyone — and we even experienced this when things kind of broke last fall — is Heartland,” Tidball told legislators in a hearing earlier this year. “There are people who work for the department...that remember the Heartland case.

“The reality is every time that these unlicensed facilities would come up, everyone was like, ‘We don’t want another Heartland.’ People were afraid to have another Heartland because it was so high-profile.”

Operated by millionaire Sharpe, a prominent Republican who made his fortune after founding Kansas City-based Ozark National Life Insurance Co., the Christian school for troubled youth sits on thousands of acres of farmland and pasture in rural northeast Missouri.

The school drew national attention in 2001 after a call to the state hotline reported students were being forced to stand in ankle- to chest-deep cow manure as a punishment.

Several months later, after two more allegations of abuse were lodged against the facility, authorities raided the school and removed 115 children, prompting a series of lawsuits and challenges that took years to wind through the courts.

In the end, felony child abuse charges against five employees were either dropped or the staffers were acquitted. Sharpe and his school also were cleared of any wrongdoing and the state settled with Heartland, agreeing to pay extensive attorney fees and court costs.

Ingle said she’s optimistic that the law she and Veit championed will hold up.

“I believe in the rule of law,” she said. “And I believe that logic, common sense and the best interest of the welfare of children will win the day.”

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