To prevent abuse at religious schools, Missouri lawmakers recommend new regulations

Residential facilities would have to register, perform background checks and would face repercussions after multiple abuse reports.

Members of the Missouri House of Representatives Children and Families Committee listen a witness presents information. (Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications)

In order to improve safety and understand the scope of unlicensed youth residential facilities throughout Missouri, lawmakers are recommending every facility be registered, background checks be required and that three substantiated reports of abuse and neglect result in children being removed.

Registration with the state would include a requirement that facilities conduct background checks on all owners, operators, employees and volunteers. A failure to do so would result in misdemeanor charges and administrative penalties, lawmakers recommended.

After three substantiated reports of abuse or neglect, a facility’s registration would be revoked and children removed from the facility.

The recommendations were included in a report from the House Committee on Children and Families released on Wednesday. They follow a hearing last week in which the Department of Social Services explained they have no oversight over some Christian reform schools — despite dozens of former students coming forward sharing allegations of abuse.

That’s because Missouri law allows for facilities operated by religious organizations to be exempt from licensure requirements.

“The committee concluded that there are numerous facilities in the state that have abused vulnerable children in their care, with no state oversight, for many years,” the report read.

The recommendations aim to close that gap by requiring all unlicensed facilities to be registered with the state and meet minimum health and safety requirements that other child care facilities are held to.

All of the committee’s members signed off on the report except for Rep. Dan Stacy, a Republican from Blue Springs.

In a statement Friday, Stacy said that he believes current laws already allow for the prosecution of bad actors who might abuse children, and that “government action, however well meaning, does not always serve the best interest of children.”

The report follows The Kansas City Star’s investigations into Christian boarding schools that had substantiated reports of abuse, neglect and sexual abuse. The Star spoke with dozens of former students who recounted enduring emotional and physical abuse, being used as manual labor and ignored calls for help.

Rep. Sheila Solon, a Republican from St. Joseph and chair of the Children and Families committee, said Thursday that while lawmakers want to balance a parent’s right to place their children in religious facilities and protect religious freedom, steps like registration and background checks may help prevent abuse before it occurs. 

“We don’t want to become the state that attracts facilities that have basically been shut down in other states,” Solon said, later adding, “A lot of facilities that relocated in Missouri would have never been able to set up shop and continue to abuse children had we just had simple background checks.”

The Department of Social Services, or DSS, said during last week’s hearing that due to strict confidentiality laws the agency has no legal authority to notify other families when there has been a credible finding of abuse or neglect at a facility their child attends. A family may only learn about an investigation if their own child needs to be interviewed or if they submit a request in writing to be notified about previous investigations.

DSS said it would have to receive a list of students from the facility itself.

Thursday’s recommendations aim to address that by requiring that DSS maintain a report or website that the public can use to look up not just registered and licensed facilities — but also criminal complaints and substantiated reports of abuse and neglect found at them.

Rep. Keri Ingle, a Democrat from Lee’s Summit and former Children’s Division investigator who called for the hearing, said Thursday that in order to prevent child abuse facilities have to first be known — and it shouldn’t take reports of abuse to learn of their existence.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Ingle said.

But Stacy said another government database or “licensing program however disguised as a ‘registration'” would not ensure absolute care of children.

“As much as I wish that could be done, I believe that parents, child caregivers and those closest to the child should ultimately be responsible for insuring the wellbeing of the children to the best of their ability,” Stacy said.

Outside groups, especially those with “religious expression protections,” should be allowed to help provide those services without government intervention, Stacy said. The committee’s report seemed to violate that principle, he said.

Solon said it was difficult to determine at what point a facility’s registration would be revoked, but based the recommendation on other states’ standards. Under the committee’s recommendations, children would be removed after a facility has received three substantiated reports of abuse and neglect.

“Three is too many,” Solon said. “But at this point, there is no trigger for shutting a facility down.”

Ingle echoed Solon’s concerns calling the three reports “a guardrail,” but that it hopefully won’t be the only one in place. Ingle said she hopes to file legislation on the issue and would be supportive of her Republican colleagues who do the same.

Over the course of four hours last week, lawmakers heard testimony from advocates and representatives of unlicensed facilities and received written testimony from former students who had endured abuse. 

While some unlicensed facilities who testified expressed concern about overreach from the state, advocates said understanding the scope of facilities would be a first step toward preventing abuse in the future. They also spoke of the need for increased communication and cooperation between different entities investigating reports of abuse at the local level.

Last week’s hearing featured testimony from Jessica Seitz, the director of public policy for Missouri KidsFirst, which works to protect children from abuse and neglect. Seitz said Thursday that the recommendations are a good first step and reflect the testimony heard. She hopes to see further attention to ensuring current laws are abided by, that multidisciplinary teams work together and addressing the use of seclusion and restraint in both licensed and unlicensed facilities.

In addition, Seitz said more oversight responsibilities for DSS, like registering facilities and maintaining a public database, would likely require increased resources to ensure the agency could effectively carry it out.

“But I think it could be done,” Seitz said.

The proliferation of unlicensed facilities throughout Missouri is not new and has been an issue for decades. Ingle said the current recommendations will hopefully go toward righting that, and that “we need, in a lot of ways, to be held accountable for the ways that we all averted our eyes from this happening right beneath our noses.”

“It is my hope that we don’t waste another 20 years,” Seitz said.

Solon and Ingle said they were hopeful some of these recommendations will make it into law, citing support from both the governor’s office and House leadership.

The Kansas City Star reported earlier this week that Gov. Mike Parson directed the attorney general’s office to assist local authorities in Cedar County with their investigation and possible prosecution of charges against the Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch — where 25 girls were removed in a raid this past August.

“We all found this all alarming, disturbing, and it was something we were unaware of,” Solon said. “So I believe that the fact that we are now aware of it and can take some decisive action to protect these children is important.”

This story has been updated since it was first published.