Missouri Senate approves oversight of unlicensed faith-based reform schools

The bill, which would implement regulations like background checks, now heads back to the House

During a committee hearing on Wednesday, February 10, 2021, Rep. Keri Ingle, a Democrat from Lee’s Summit, and Rep. Rudy Veit, a Republican from Wardsville, introduce their legislation that would require youth residential facilities register with the state.(Photo by Tim Bommel/House Communications)

A bill that aims to provide increased oversight over unlicensed religious boarding schools in Missouri that have faced allegations of abuse and neglect moved one step closer to passage Tuesday.

Despite a handful of senators expressing their opposition to the bill, the Senate passed House Bill 557 with an emergency clause by a vote of 23 to nine Tuesday.

Now, with only days left in the legislative session, it heads back to the House, which unanimously approved a similar version of the bill in late March.

Rep. Rudy Veit, a Wardsville Republican and bill sponsor, said he hopes the House will sign off on the bill as is without additional changes and send it to the governor. 

For decades, the state has had little knowledge or oversight over unlicensed youth residential facilities throughout Missouri. That’s been in part because state law allows facilities operated by religious organizations to be exempt from licensure.

House Bill 557 aims to begin closing that gap by implementing regulations like background checks for all employees and volunteers. It would also require all facilities notify the Department of Social Services of their existence and compliance with various health and safety standards, allow parents unencumbered access to see their children and put in place mechanisms to petition a court and remove children from a facility in instances of suspected abuse or neglect.

Allegations of abuse and neglect have arisen at unlicensed facilities for years, but the issue was renewed this legislative session following a series of investigations by The Kansas City Star 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.

Ahead of the debate on the Senate floor Tuesday, the bill’s House sponsors said they were hopeful of its prospects — citing bipartisan support in its unanimous passage out of the House.

“We’ve put politics out of this,” said Rep. Keri Ingle, a Democrat from Lee’s Summit and former Children’s Division investigator. “The only winners need to be the children of the state of Missouri.”

Lawmakers spent Monday reaching a compromise to introduce stronger provisions regarding due process, like ensuring that when an ex parte order requires a facility to cease operations, that a hearing be held within three business days to determine whether the order will stay in effect.

Despite concessions made to appease concerns surrounding due process, Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, said her opposition was steadfast. Her concerns stemmed in part from larger systemic issues with the Children’s Division within the Department of Social Services, which she said is “a mess.”

DSS officials have said that because of lack of oversight within state law, they are limited in their ability to intervene in cases of abuse and neglect at unlicensed facilities, despite at times knowing of cases.

“We can pass 500 laws, but if people aren’t going to enforce them and we do not have a system in place that works, we’re not fixing anything. I mean, it almost becomes nonsense,” O’Laughlin said ahead of Tuesday’s debate, later adding: “I don’t think agencies need more authority when they’re obviously not carrying out the authority they already have.”

O’Laughlin said she wasn’t opposed to facilities notifying the state of their existence, but opposed the state taking on administrative control.

“I think it’s a mistake to believe that if the state’s running it, that means it’s a quality thing,” O’Laughlin said, “because in my mind, that’s not true.”

Ingle said she shares O’Laughlin’s concerns about the department, but that the bill would be a first step to larger child welfare reform and ensure that “some of the horrific stories that we’ve seen in the past, specifically about these facilities with licensed and unlicensed, don’t continue.”

Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, said he was in a similar position — wondering if registration of a facility’s presence would do enough to stop instances of abuse and neglect from occurring.

“We don’t and should not tolerate any type of abusive situations,” Moon said, later adding: “I don’t see how another regulation, requirement that will require registration of a facility will change the occurrences and I’m hopeful that when reports are made that they will be followed through.”

But Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, stressed that the bill does more than just require facilities’ registration with the state, noting a major piece of the legislation would be requiring background checks for facility employees and volunteers. White said it was a “travesty” that background checks weren’t already required for staff who are working with children.

Under the bill, a person who is required to submit to a background check and fails to do so could be found guilty of a class B misdemeanor.

“These kids are totally defenseless when they are abused and neglected,” White said, noting that kids in such facilities are often isolated from their parents and prevented from accessing outside help.

Veit said he understands concerns around government oversight and protecting religious freedom, but stressed that “someone has to be the entity to take responsibility to oversee these and make sure what happened in the past doesn’t happen again.”

The bill explicitly states that it does not give government agencies the ability to regulate or control religious curriculum of facilities operated by religious organizations.

Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, said he was supportive of provisions like that, but still worried about possible unintended consequences, especially for facilities operating on “shoestring budgets” who would now be required to comply with a new slate of regulations.

Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, said she viewed it as a “fight between good and evil.” While she did not want to protect facilities perpetuating abuse, she said not enough input had been received from families who have benefitted from religious facilities. 

Veit said he has heard from former students who have lived through the facilities all week who are eager to see movement on the legislation.

“They had the strength to come forth and tell their stories and they would hate to see that all just be for no result. It’s very personal to come forward and tell stories about how you’ve been in one of these homes and all you had to go through and share that with the world what they have done,” Veit said. “And so out of respect for them, we need to give this bill very serious thought and not to push it off another year.”