Lawmakers press Missouri DSS for change after abuse allegations at unlicensed schools

By: - April 7, 2021 3:46 pm

The Missouri House chamber (photo courtesy of Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications)

Since 2015, the Department of Social Services has been court ordered to place at least two children in unlicensed youth residential facilities — including one that is the subject of an investigation by local law enforcement and the Attorney General’s office over allegations of abuse.

The foster children placed in those facilities, including the Agape Boarding School, are not there now, Jennifer Tidball, the acting director of the department, told the House Special Committee on Government Oversight on Wednesday.

Over the course of a three hour hearing, lawmakers slammed the department for lack of action on years of alleged abuse. But they also delved into widespread issues throughout the department from understaffing to a fear of retaliation that has prevented staff from speaking out.

Wednesday’s hearing was the fourth in a series of hearings lawmakers have held in the wake of The Kansas City Star’s investigations into Christian boarding schools that had substantiated reports of abuse, neglect and sexual abuse. The Agape Boarding School was a focus of the series.

Under state law, facilities operated by religious organizations are exempt from licensure requirements — a gap lawmakers are attempting to close with a bipartisan bill that would implement regulations like background checks and registration with the state.

Search warrant information obtained by The Star found that an employee of Agape Boarding School had called law enforcement to let them know that records that would document the alleged abuse were being destroyed.

From 2019 to 2020, there were 64 “preponderance of evidence” findings among both licensed and unlicensed facilities that child abuse or neglect occurred, Tidball said.

In the wake of The Star’s investigations, lawmakers have held hearings on the issue, and last month Attorney General Eric Schmitt charged the owners of Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in southeast Missouri with 102 crimes. The school was also a focus of The Star’s investigations.

Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, described the exemption for religious facilities as a “crater” that has carved out those facilities from oversight. 

“We had this situation where we have these credible allegations — so credible that we made numerous preponderance of evidence findings and law enforcement agreed — and that we just threw our hands up because of the nature of this exemption, and that this continued to occur,” Ingle said, later adding: “Why did we not fight harder for these kids?”

The department has repeatedly said that state law allows for little oversight over unlicensed facilities — and that if a substantiated report of abuse or neglect is found, that it is then shared with local law enforcement and prosecutors.

“I haven’t sat in this department for 25 years because I don’t care about kids. I do,” Tidball said, later adding, “I do share the frustration, and I truly — I did not know.”

Having the ability to subpoena records and access children in unlicensed facilities were some of the measures DSS officials pointed to as potential solutions.

When asked directly why the department hasn’t made lawmakers aware of issues at unlicensed facilities sooner, Tidball said it was due to a variety of factors, including not wanting to repeat how Heartland Christian Academy was handled.

Tidball called the academy “the elephant in the room.” It was raided in 2001 following reports of abuse and use of corporal punishment, and more than 100 students were removed as a result. The raid gained national headlines and became the subject of a years-long lawsuit. The state eventually settled the case.

“The reality is, every time that these unlicensed facilities would come up, everyone’s like, ‘Well, we don’t want another Heartland,’” Tidball said, later adding: “I think that that’s part of it, is that people were afraid to have another Heartland because it was so high profile.”

What’s more, when investigating allegations of abuse and neglect at residential youth facilities, it takes more than just the department — other entities like the courts and juvenile officers are also involved. Tidball said at times staff are wary of upsetting that balance with local entities they have to work with frequently.

Tidball acknowledged she could have done more to find out about issues, but in part blamed the department’s organizational structure for why reports weren’t reaching her.

“Should I have dug deeper? Should I have known more about what was going on in the Children’s Division? I can take responsibility for that,” Tidball said. “But I think that part of it is you had people that were following chain of command… It wasn’t getting up to me.”

While Tidball said she is always accessible to staff members and that they aren’t prohibited from speaking with state legislators, lawmakers said they have heard from case workers who fear retaliation for speaking out about issues within the department and handling of cases.

“Really the only three people that we could interact with in the department, is you three right here,” Rep. J. Eggleston, R-Maysville, told Tidball.

Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, said in the past the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect has heard from department staff who are in “just utter and complete fear” in regards to facing retaliation.

Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain Grove, pushed for the department to ensure its policies are formalized and standardized across the department, highlighting a lack of a sufficient response to hotline calls.

“We can legislate all day long, but if the only basis by which I make sure a child in my district is safe is faulty, then everything we do here in this room doesn’t really matter a whole lot,” Kelly said.

Lawmakers also lamented roadblocks they have faced in trying to gather information, with Ingle recounting how she requested a report from the Office of Administration that was conducted by the Office of Child Advocate, which investigates complaints against the Children’s Division and reviews allegations of abuse. When she received it, it was heavily redacted.

“There’s been obstructions and roadblocks from the beginning,” Ingle said.

A lack of information has made it frustrating to provide oversight, said Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, leaving lawmakers “blinded.” When attempting to request information under a state statute that allows “government entities” to access confidential Children’s Division records, Bailey said lawmakers have been declined.

“Just getting to the information takes us months. I don’t know if that’s by design, or if that’s you stalling. But here’s the thing, kids have been allegedly raped and sodomized. That keeps me awake at night,” Bailey said. “And that irritates me. So if we need to get a court order to compel you to follow the law, then we’ll do so.”

Tidball said the department’s attorney plans to meet with the Missouri House counsel and Attorney General’s office tomorrow to discuss how records could be provided. 

Lawmakers also touched on the slow implementation of legislation that went into effect last year, where the department stands on documenting the number of children diverted after parents lose custody and the department’s struggle to attract case workers.

Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, and chair of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight, said the committee plans to hold a hearing next week to allow members of the public to testify.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covers education, health care and the legislature. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She most recently covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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