Lawsuits mounting against unlicensed Missouri boarding schools accused of abuse
A federal lawsuit was filed earlier this month by a former student who says she suffered abuse at a now-shuttered Christian school in Cedar County
The mounting legal attacks against Circle of Hope Girls Ranch and Agape Boarding School, both located in Cedar County, are only the latest in a years-long saga involving allegations of abuse at unlicensed boarding schools in Missouri (Getty Images).
Thirty lawsuits have been filed over the last two years against a pair of southwest Missouri boarding schools accused by former students of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
The latest, filed Aug. 12 against the now-shuttered Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in Cedar County, is the first to proceed in federal court. Maggie Drew, 30, filed the lawsuit against the school she attended from 2007 to 2013.
Drew alleges Circle of Hope illegally took her inheritance money and required her to endure forced labor that permanently injured her back. She also alleges that the co-owner of the school sexually abused her.
“I decided to file the lawsuit because as long as I was there, I realized they’d robbed me of quite a bit: monetarily, physically and mentally,” said Drew in an interview with The Independent.
The mounting legal attacks against Circle of Hope and Agape Boarding School, which is also located in Cedar County, are only the latest in a years-long saga involving allegations of abuse at unlicensed boarding schools in Missouri.
Circle of Hope closed in 2020, and its owners, Boyd and Stephanie Householder, face 101 felony charges, including statutory rape, abuse and neglect of a child.
Agape also faces criminal charges stemming from allegations of abuse, though the charges filed by the local prosecutor fell far short of what was recommended by Missouri’s attorney general.
And despite the criminal charges and outcry from former students, Agape remains open.
‘A joint venture’
Residential facilities operated by religious organizations long operated outside the purview of most Department of Social Services authority because they could claim exemptions from licensure requirements.
Criticism of the schools reached new heights in late 2020, when The Kansas City Star published an extensive investigation into the lack of oversight of the schools despite mounting evidence of physical and sexual abuse.
The Star’s reporting led to a legislative inquiry, which ultimately resulted in a new law giving the state more regulatory authority.
Drew arrived at Circle of Hope in 2007 after, according to the lawsuit, her pastor falsely accused her of “being into sex and drugs” and recommended to her stepmother and father that she be taken there.
During her first 30 days there, Drew was forbidden from speaking to her father and stepmother, and couldn’t participate in schooling, or speak to the other girls, according to the lawsuit.
Drew says she entered into a rigidly stratified system in which girls were allegedly required to discipline other girls, assigning push ups to one another or even being forced to restrain one another.
Students were allegedly “thrown to the ground” and “sat upon by other students, Boyd and Stephanie Householder,” sometimes while handcuffed or restrained with zip ties, for minutes or hours on end.
Boyd Householder “began grabbing [Drew’s] buttocks when he passed by,” then “progressed to putting his hands across her breasts,” and would “kiss her and fondle her whenever they were in the office together,” the lawsuit alleges.
The result was “severe emotional and psychological injuries” for Drew, the lawsuit says.
Drew and the other students were forced to perform manual labor, including bucking hay, the lawsuit alleges, from which Drew still suffers chronic pain and back injuries. She also “fell out of a hay loft and was not given any medical treatment,” the lawsuit says.
Drew’s father, who had custody of her, died in 2009 while she was at the school, after which the Householders allegedly took her social security benefits and the $25,000 her grandfather had left her for college. The lawsuit alleges that this violated the federal Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act.
In an interview, Drew said that when leaving the school, she asked the Householders about her inheritance, and Stephanie “just laughed at me and said, ‘Oh honey, that money’s been gone.’”
The lawsuit names Agape and its now-deceased founder as defendants, too, arguing that they knew about the abuse occurring at Circle of Hope and did nothing to stop it.
The Householders worked at Agape before founding Circle of Hope — in what the lawsuit calls a “joint venture” with Agape to establish Circle of Hope as its “sister institution.” The Householders, Drew said in an interview, “got many of their disciplinary actions from [Agape], like the restraints and push-ups.”
According to the lawsuit, the Householders’ daughter Amanda informed the late Agape founder of abuse at Circle of Hope, and he “took no remedial action,” and “aided and abetted the abuses.”
The attorney for the Householders on the federal case is not yet listed. An attorney who previous represented Circle of Hope said because the case was so recently filed and Circle of Hope has not been served, he does not yet know who will represent them.
The federal lawsuit requests a jury trial and unspecified damages. Drew’s lawyer, Rebecca Reedles, said in an interview that it typically takes 12 to 18 months to reach a federal court trial.
In addition to this federal suit, Circle of Hope has been hit with eight lawsuits by former students — four have been settled and four are still pending.
Of the four unlicensed Christian boarding schools that existed in their county two years ago, only Agape remains open.
There have been 21 lawsuits filed against Agape since early last year, including two last month.
The lawsuits paint a similar picture of life at Agape. Several former students say they were taken off prescribed medications and reassured that “God would fix them.” Others allege they were physically restrained or starved as a form of punishment.
The lawsuits also allege violation of the state’s Merchandising Practices Act, which prohibits fraud and deception.
Promised academic success, the lawsuits allege students were “forced to teach themselves” and provided an education many later realized was not accredited for colleges they wanted to apply for. Promised vocational training and mentoring, the lawsuit says they were instead forced to submit to “unending physical labor as part of their ‘training.’” Promised to “show God’s love to teen boys,” Agape instead allegedly subjected students to “extreme punishment and torture” that the lawsuit says was disguised as restraint.
Attorney John Schultz, who is representing Agape, denied all accusations in a statement to The Independent, which he has previously provided to other media. He called the accusations “sensational” and said that the “24/7” supervision of students meant that several allegations “could not have happened.”
“For the past 30 years Agape has provided over 6,000 boys with an opportunity to get their life back on track and toward a bright future,” Schultz said in the statement, later adding: “We have filed responses to these lawsuits denying the allegations and look forward to a trial where evidence can be presented to refute these allegations.”
‘Justice and closure’
Last year the legislature passed a bill to increase oversight of unlicensed boarding schools, requiring background checks and compliance with various health and safety standards.
The law, the Residential Care Facility Notification Act, also put in place the mechanism for removal of children from the facility in instances of suspected abuse or neglect.
In late 2021, the Cedar County prosecuting attorney Ty Gaither filed only a fraction of the counts against Agape that Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt recommended, spurring outrage from former students and drawing attention to ties between politicians and law enforcement with owners of Christian reform schools.
Robert Bucklin, an outspoken former Agape student who is also suing the school, argues Schmitt has the authority to shut down the school under the law passed last year, and should do so. The law allows the Department of Social Services, as well as law enforcement or the prosecuting attorney, to file for injunction to close the school.
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office declined to comment.
Asked about the status of DSS’s investigation into Agape, the agency said they cannot comment on specific cases, and that, “to date, no action has been taken against a facility under the Residential Care Facility Notification Act.”
Rep. Keri Ingle, who co authored the oversight bill, could not be reached Thursday. She previously told The Daily Beast that the state might be waiting for a criminal conviction or DSS’s official findings of abuse in order to file for injunction to close the facility.
Bucklin said the lawsuits filed by former students who suffered abuse “aren’t about money.”
“Money can’t buy us justice or closure for our being molested. You can’t hand me $5 million and say, ‘Here’s your justice for being molested, starved, or tortured.’
“That justice and closure only comes knowing that the school shut down and can’t hurt anybody else.”
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