House probe of boarding school abuse continues, including review of lawmaker emails

Legislators on the oversight committee said testimony revealed Circle of Hope owners would name drop public officials during interactions with investigators

By: - September 22, 2021 12:34 pm

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

A Missouri House oversight committee received records nearly two months ago documenting regular contact between a pair of legislators and the owner of a boarding school facing felony child abuse and neglect charges.

Yet at its first public hearing since May last week, the emails were never mentioned — and most members say they’ve not yet reviewed them or declined to comment.

The House Special Committee on Government Oversight has been investigating the state’s response to reports of abuse and neglect at unlicensed boarding schools for the past seven months.

In July, The Independent reported the committee would be reviewing years of emails between two GOP lawmakers — Rep. Mike Stephens of Bolivar and Sen. Sandy Crawford of Buffalo — and boarding school operators from their legislative districts who are now facing nearly 100 felony charges.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, obtained the emails through an open records request and shared them with the committee. Republican House leadership had been made aware of her requests before they were filed.

While some on the committee question whether they have the authority to investigate their peers, Quade said she hopes the initial momentum to delve into the records has not dissipated.

“The momentum has been there,” Quade said. “What my intention is, is to ensure that it doesn’t go away.”

The emails showed Stephanie Householder, an owner of the reform school Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in southwest Missouri, kept the two lawmakers apprised of local law enforcement and child protective services investigations, relayed allegations of abuse and shared positive testimonials from students and parents.

In response, Stephens offered the assistance of the two lawmakers to the Householders and advocated directly to Department of Social Services leadership.

Stephens has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, saying he was simply advocating on behalf of his constituents and did not witness what occurred inside the facility.

Members of the committee interviewed by The Independent said they became interested in the actions of their fellow legislators when testimony revealed the Householders would name drop public officials during interactions with investigators.

Rep. Scott Cupps, a Republican from Shell Knob, said the committee was told that the Householders would name politicians in statements to law enforcement, “to try to say, ‘Hey, I have friends in high places. You need to quit picking on us.’”

The Householders’ estranged daughter, Amanda, said that behavior would not surprise her.

“It was very typical of him to tell the girls that they had no hope because he knew these people,” Amanda Householder said of her father.

Adam Woody, an attorney for the Householders, declined to comment, citing his clients’ pending legal case.

Name dropping

Amanda Householder, who has been outspoken about how girls were treated at the facility said, throughout her childhood, “name dropping was a huge thing.” 

Maggie Drew, a former student who was at the facility from 2007 to 2013, said it was common for the Householders to say they were friends with law enforcement and that the law was on their side.

“The Householders always bragged that they had ties,” Drew said. “They always bragged that they knew people in positions of power, and that that was one of the reasons why the state wouldn’t interfere was because they had already talked to these people. And they all agreed with what they were doing.”

Stephens said in an interview last week it would only be natural if the Householders mentioned his name, noting he has known them for years through his pharmacy business and that he attempted to advocate for them when they came under scrutiny. Crawford did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

“I wouldn’t be upset or insulted. I mean, because it’s true,” Stephens said. “We did speak about it. And I did speak up on their behalf.”

Stephens reiterated that he spoke up for the Householders to ensure they received a fair hearing, but “not in defense of any possible misuse of their position.” The emails reflected that, he said.

“I think that Rep. Quade was looking for something culpatory, and there wasn’t any,” Stephens said.

Cupps said ultimately he believes there was a systemic failure to protect kids.

“It really all did go back to just not only negligence of the department, but negligence of the system,” he said.

Committee inquiry

At the House Special Committee on Government Oversight’s hearing last week — its first meeting since members received the records in late July — the topic of legislative emails was not discussed. 

Instead, the committee focused on the Department of Social Services’ implementation of a new law that requires facilities operated by a religious organization who are exempt from state licensure notify the state of their existence and require background checks for staff and volunteers. Under emergency regulations published this week, unlicensed facilities will have until Oct. 12 to comply with notification requirements.

The Department has previously said it likely won’t be able to complete background checks by that time due to hiring and training staff for the potential influx.

Rep. Jered Taylor, a Nixa Republican and chair of the committee, said he was among those who had not yet reviewed the records provided by Quade. 

Rep. Keri Ingle, a Lee’s Summit Democrat and former Children’s Division investigator, said the division has procedures in place in order to ensure investigations occur according to set standards, and “when we use our real or perceived power to try to change or influence that investigation, then that’s really concerning.”

Rep. Raychel Proudie, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the possibility of legislators being involved in thwarting further investigation “is extraordinarily problematic.”

Proudie said the emails and questions they raised are still being assessed, with the committee treading cautiously because of the nature of child abuse investigations.

“We will absolutely and without question — and are — still doing work with that. That was not for nothing,” Proudie said of the emails, later adding: “That wasn’t just a flash in the pan.”

Taylor reiterated that if there were any potential misconduct the House Ethics Committee would be the appropriate venue to investigate such allegations. It’s a point echoed by Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty.

“We have an attorney general’s office to investigate interfering in an ongoing investigation — if that even happened,” Ellebracht said. “I’m not confident in any meaningful way that it did.”

Quade declined to discuss whether she intends to file an ethics complaint based on what she has read from the emails, but said she hopes a discussion is held on whether to go that direction.

“I want to make sure that whatever direction we’re going is the right way,” Quade said. “So that whatever decision is made that we don’t do something wrong and get in the way of doing the right thing.”

Taylor said it appears Stephens and Crawford were advocating for their constituents, which is ultimately lawmakers’ top priority.

“We want to make sure that they’re getting their fair shake in the deal,” he said of lawmakers advocating for constituents. “And again, I think that that’s probably what happened in this situation.”

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. 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 also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.