News Briefs

Missouri lawmakers send bill to prevent abuse in religious reform schools to governor

By: - May 13, 2021 4:36 pm

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)

Inspired by horrific stories of abuse and neglect that former students experienced at unlicensed religious reform schools in Missouri, lawmakers sent to the governor’s desk a bill Thursday that aims to provide greater oversight and better protections for students.

House Bill 557, which was sponsored by Reps. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, and Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, received near unanimous approval in the House Thursday, with a vote of 147-1 in favor of its passage. 

For decades, the state has had no clear understanding of the scope of unlicensed youth residential facilities — in part, because state law allows facilities operated by religious organizations to be exempt from licensure.

The Department of Social Services has said they are limited from fully intervening in such homes, despite knowing about some substantiated instances of abuse of neglect.

Calls for change were renewed this session after 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.

Lawmakers said it would be some of the most important pieces of legislation they would pass all year.

“Words cannot describe how thankful I am to the body for taking (action) quickly and decisively this session to protect children in Missouri’s religious residential care facilities,” Ingle, a former Children’s Division investigator, said in a statement. “This bill will grant law enforcement and our government the tools it needs to hold accountable the monsters perpetrating physical and sexual abuse and neglect on kids at some of these institutions.”

The bill would require background checks for all facility employees and volunteers, that facilities notify the Department of Social Services of their existence and compliance with various health and safety standards and allow parents unencumbered access to see their children.

It also puts in place mechanisms to petition a court and remove children from a facility in instances of suspected abuse or neglect.

The final version passed Thursday also included revisions made to appease senators who were in opposition to the bill, including stronger due process protections, 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.

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. It also explicitly states that it does not give government entities the ability to regulate religious curriculum at such facilities.

The bill contains an emergency clause, which means it will go into effect as soon as it’s signed into law.

“Everyday we wait is an unnecessary risk to children, so we cannot afford to wait any longer than we have,” Veit said.

The bill now heads to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk for his signature or veto. Ingle previously said the governor’s office has been supportive of the bill.

In March, 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, and Scmitt described it as “one of the most widespread cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse patterns against young girls and women in Missouri history.”

Schmitt’s office was appointed as a special prosecutor in the case by Parson in November. Parson later directed Schmitt to again assist local law enforcement in an investigation into a second school, according to The Kansas City Star

In the wake of The Star’s investigations, lawmakers have held multiple hearings on the Department of Social Services’ handling of such cases, which has broadened in scope to focus on both unlicensed and licensed facilities.

“As more and more of us have become aware of the faults and failures within the system of our ability to keep our kids safe, this is an incredibly important step forward,” said Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, an Arnold Republican and chair of the House Children and Families Committee the bill passed out of earlier this session.

At that February hearing, former students recounted horrifying instances of being sexually abused, thrown to the ground and restrained for hours and forced to eat their own vomit. They pleaded with lawmakers to ensure that more children in the future would never have to endure what they did.

“This state failed me, but I’m still here today and I’m being that voice,” former Agape Boarding School student Allen Knoll said during the hearing. “Let’s not let somebody else come up here in 10 years and have to say, ‘Why did you fail me?’”

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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.