Legislation that would for the first time give the state some oversight of Missouri’s unlicensed boarding schools is one step away from the governor’s desk.
In the final days of the legislative session, Missouri senators on Tuesday passed a measure aimed at stopping abuse at the state’s faith-based schools that for nearly four decades have been exempt from regulation. The final vote was 23-9 following a 90-minute debate.
“I’m excited that the legislature has taken a giant step forward in protecting the children of this state, regardless of where they’re located,” Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, who first pushed for legislative action, told The Star after the vote. “The survivors of abuse who have fought so hard to prevent other children from experiencing the same trauma they’ve endured deserve all the credit for their advocacy and work.
“I hope that this is the first step we make in reforming child welfare and truly protecting the children of Missouri.”
Four senators spoke in opposition to parts of the bill, which comes after allegations at several schools, including Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, whose owners now face 102 criminal charges of abuse and neglect.
The legislation also follows The Star’s months-long investigation of faith-based reform schools, which a 1982 law allows to claim an exemption from Missouri’s licensing requirement. The statute also says that the state Department of Social Services cannot require those claiming an exemption to prove that they should be exempt.
Three of the senators who opposed the measure have unlicensed boarding schools in their districts. The fourth said he had some schools “in and near” his district.
“I know that we’re trying to go after the bad actors, and I appreciate that,” said Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg. “But I think sometimes our legislation, though, has unintended consequences. … Many of these facilities operate on shoestring budgets and by putting some additional regulations and paperwork burdens on them then they may not be able to serve as many kids because of some of those extra costs.”
But, in the end, senators in favor of regulating faith-based boarding schools won out.
“I think this law, overall, does a great job of making sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, who carried the bill in the Senate. “These kids are totally defenseless when they are abused and neglected. These kids are in a very vulnerable position, and if there is a bad actor, whether it be an individual or a whole facility, those children need to be protected.
“Saving one kid is more than enough for everybody in the state to do this.”
The measure now goes back to the House for approval. That chamber unanimously approved the measure in late March. If it accepts the Senate version, the proposal will go to Gov. Mike Parson. If he signs it, the law will immediately go into effect.
Parson’s office would not weigh in on the bill’s merits.
“All legislation that the General Assembly passes goes through a review process at this office prior to the Governor making a decision to sign or veto a bill,” said Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones in an email to The Star.
Because of the state’s current lax law, Missouri has become a safe harbor for unlicensed facilities, some that have been investigated or shut down in other states. They often settle in rural and secluded parts of the state where they can fly under the radar.
Known as The Child Residential Home Notification Act, the proposed legislation — identical bills sponsored by Ingle and Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville — would require all faith-based boarding schools to register with the state and mandate federal criminal background checks for all employees and volunteers. The schools also would have to comply with fire, safety and health regulations.
Failure to comply with notification and health and safety inspections, or if a facility is suspected of abuse or neglect, could result in the boarding school being shut down or the removal of children.
Former students of several Missouri boarding schools listened to the debate online from across the country.
“This is awesome,” said Colton Schrag, a former student at Agape Boarding School in Cedar County, who tuned in from the oil and gas fields in Texas. “It’s great to see that the Missouri legislators are willing to do what’s necessary to make changes in their state concerning kids. It’s a good first step.”
Schrag, who testified in support of the bill before a House committee in February, said he was frustrated to hear talk during the debate comparing some exercises at the schools to basic training in the military.
“My time at Agape Boarding School was 10 times harder than my time in basic training as an infantryman,” he said. “In basic training, they gave me adequate meals and rest time.”
A legislative effort to change the law in 2003 died in the House after intense pressure from opponents who said it would interfere with religious freedom. But sponsors of the new bill and child advocates insist the issue is not about religion.
Under the legislation, no government agency would be allowed to regulate or control the content of a school’s religious curriculum or the ministry of a school sponsored by a church or religious organization.
Sen. Sandy Crawford, a Buffalo Republican who has several boarding schools in her district — including Circle of Hope and Agape, both of which are under investigation — voted against the bill.
“Let me make this perfectly clear,” Crawford said. “What I don’t want to do is protect anyone who hurts a child. That is just despicable to me. I do worry about intruding on some of our religious facilities, whether it be a children’s home or whether it be a church or whatever.
“We heard a lot of negative testimony from people who have been in some really terrible situations...We haven’t really heard from the families who have benefited from some of these homes, and they have success stories. There are literally hundreds of them.”
Another senator who opposed the measure mentioned it in a recent weekly column to constituents. Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, said there are already laws on the books that protect children who are abused and anything further would only threaten religious practice and freedom.
The legislation “wants to put these boarding schools under the purview of the Department of Social Services and Children’s Division,” said O’Laughlin, who has faith-based boarding schools in her district. “What was once free to operate would instead come under the thumb of government agencies and bureaucrats who are already struggling to administer our state’s programs for foster children.
“I do not like the idea of the state coming in to tell religious practitioners how to do their business or how to discipline their children.”
Supporters of the bill insist that won’t be the case.
When presenting the measure to the Senate, White said it is crucial to know where these schools are and that school employees have passed background checks.
“These children are there 24 hours a day under the supervision of individuals,” White said. “This is going after the miscreant places, the very minority of them. But the damage from having this minority not being supervised to a degree is damaging. Definitely.”
Reporter Jeanne Kuang contributed to this report.