Missouri reform schools lack government oversight, but get nearly $1M in COVID relief

Judy L. Thomas, Laura Bauer
·6 min read

Seven unlicensed Christian boarding schools in Missouri — two now under criminal investigation for allegations of abuse — have been awarded a total of nearly $1 million in COVID bailouts.

Circle of Hope Girls Ranch and Agape Baptist Church, home of Agape Boarding School, received lender-approved loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, according to data from the Small Business Administration compiled by FederalPay.org. Both schools are in Cedar County.

The reform schools are among more than a dozen that operate in Missouri, where there is no state oversight because of a nearly 40-year-old law that exempts faith-based facilities. That lack of accountability has allowed abuse and neglect to go unchecked for decades.

The unlicensed boarding schools are facing scrutiny from lawmakers this session. A bill to implement oversight has unanimously passed the House and now is under consideration by the Senate.

“They don’t want state oversight, but yet they are going to take money from the feds,” said Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, who has been a vocal critic of unlicensed reform schools accused of abuse. “A lot of money from the feds to run their business. It’s disgusting.”

Circle of Hope’s owners are currently in custody facing 102 charges of abuse involving students, and Agape is under investigation by the Attorney General’s office for abuse allegations.

Maggie Drew attended a rally in November in Stockton, Missouri, to call attention to alleged abuses at Circle of Hope Girls Ranch and other faith-based reform schools. Her sign listed her own experiences, she said.
Maggie Drew attended a rally in November in Stockton, Missouri, to call attention to alleged abuses at Circle of Hope Girls Ranch and other faith-based reform schools. Her sign listed her own experiences, she said.

Master’s Ranch Christian Academy, a boarding school in Oregon County that has been found by the state Department of Social Services to have two substantiated reports of neglect since 2010, also received a PPP loan, records show. The loan recipient was listed as Master’s Baptist Church, the name under which the school does business.

Other boarding schools receiving federal loans were Refuge of Grace — also known as Wings of Faith — outside Stockton in Cedar County; Future Men in Kirbyville; Runnymede School for Boys in Walnut Grove; and Whetstone Boys Ranch in Mountain View.

“When you have businesses with zero oversight taking federal funds, it rings a lot of alarm bells,” said Rep. Keri Ingle, a Lee’s Summit Democrat who asked for a legislative hearing last fall after reading about Circle of Hope. “We don’t have an entity that is auditing them in any way.”

The Star reached out to Agape and Master’s Ranch for comment but did not hear back.

The Paycheck Protection Program is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Employment Security Act passed by Congress in March 2020. It was aimed at infusing small businesses with cash in hopes that they could keep workers on their payroll.

Companies and nonprofits that receive PPP loans may have the loans forgiven if they meet certain requirements, according to the SBA. Those criteria include not laying off employees during the period covered by the loan. Applicants also must declare that the loans are necessary for their continuing operation.

Records show Agape received $363,215 in PPP money. The loan was approved April 27, 2020, according to the data. On its application, Agape said $275,000 would go toward payroll, $68,215 for rent and $20,000 toward utilities. The school reported that it provided 64 jobs.

Last month, the Missouri Highway Patrol told The Star that it was conducting a criminal investigation into allegations of abuse and neglect at Agape Boarding School, located about three miles west of Stockton. The investigation was being conducted at the request of the Cedar County Sheriff and the Missouri Department of Social Services Children’s Division, a patrol spokesman said.

Soon after that, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson directed the Attorney General’s office to assist in the investigation, and it is ongoing.

Master’s Ranch, which operates two boarding schools for boys near Couch and Myrtle and one for girls near Thayer, was approved for a $157,900 PPP loan on April 9, 2020, the data show. The entire loan was to go toward payroll, and the schools provided 31 jobs, according to the application.

Master’s Ranch owner David Bosley came to Missouri from Washington and opened his first boarding school for boys in 2007. Bosley also briefly operated a Master’s Ranch West boarding school in Prescott, Washington, but it was closed last May after the sheriff’s department and state child welfare workers investigated allegations of child abuse and neglect.

The Washington facility, which hadn’t been licensed, was shuttered after authorities interviewed 45 to 50 boys and removed eight as part of their investigation. In December, the state obtained an injunction to keep it closed unless it gets licensed by the state.

Two reports of neglect have been substantiated since 2010 at the Master’s Ranch for older boys in Couch, DSS said. The school’s location for junior high boys in Myrtle and the one for girls in Thayer have had no substantiated reports of abuse or neglect, according to DSS.

Circle of Hope Girls Ranch was approved for an $11,200 PPP loan on April 15, 2020, the data show. The total amount was to go toward payroll, the application said. The number of jobs reported was three.

On March 9, Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced 102 charges against Boyd and Stephanie Householder, who operated Circle of Hope near Humansville for 14 years before closing it in September after two dozen girls were removed from the facility amid an investigation.

All but one of the charges, including statutory rape, sodomy and physical abuse, are felonies. The couple is being held without bond in the Vernon County Jail. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Refuge of Grace, a girls academy that also goes by the name Wings of Faith, was approved for a $65,076 PPP loan on April 13, 2020, according to the data. The school said the loan would go toward payroll for 14 employees.

The Star has interviewed several Wings of Faith students. All described extreme disciplinary tactics that included restraining by staff and other students, excessive workouts and what they said was psychological abuse. According to DSS, the school has had no substantiated abuse or neglect allegations.

Whetstone Boys Ranch in Mountain View was approved for two PPP loans in the past year, records show. One was approved March 26 this year for $136,300, the vast majority to go toward its payroll for 21 employees. Records show the lender had not yet reported that the funds had been disbursed. The school also had a loan approved in April 2020 for $130,400. All of that was to go toward its payroll for 20 employees, according to its application.

Future Men of Kirbyville was approved for a $77,900 PPP loan on May 20, 2020, the data show. Of that, $62,320 was to go toward payroll for 14 employees, $10,000 for utilities and $5,580 for rent.

Runnymede School for Boys in Walnut Grove received a $16,700 loan that was approved April 30, 2020, to go toward payroll for two employees.

For months, The Star has been investigating Missouri’s faith-based reform schools, where former students and parents say abuse has been allowed to continue for decades because of the lax law.

Legislation introduced after The Star began its investigation would require background checks of employees, health and safety inspections and notification that the schools are operating in the state. It passed the Missouri House on March 29 and awaits action by the Senate.