‘Road to hell’: Students who faced abuse at Missouri boarding schools call for action

By Tessa Weinberg
The Missouri Independent

Thrown to the ground and restrained for hours. Forced to eat food they had thrown up. Silenced with duct-tape over their mouths. Beaten without immediate medical care.

Those were just some of instances of the horrific physical and sexual abuse former residents, parents and staff described witnessing in youth residential facilities within Missouri and across the country.

“I don’t know how a kid has not died in your state in these schools that exist,” said Colton Schrag, who spent years at Agape Boarding School in southwest Missouri, where dozens of former students have described experiencing abuse.

For decades, Missouri has not had a clear understanding of the scope of unlicensed youth residential facilities in the state and no oversight over them, as state law allows facilities operated by religious organizations to be exempt from licensure.

A bipartisan pair of bills heard Wednesday before the House Committee on Children and Families aims to put regulations in place.

Bills filed by Rep. Keri Ingle, a Democrat from Lee’s Summit, and Rep. Rudy Veit, a Republican from Wardsville, would require background checks for all employees and volunteers and that all facilities notify the Department of Social Services of their existence and compliance with various health and safety standards. 

In instances of suspected abuse or neglect or failure to comply with required notifications and inspections, DSS may request an injunction or restraining order to cease operations or remove children from the home.

The bill also allows for the Children’s Division of DSS, a juvenile officer or prosecuting attorney to petition a circuit court to require a residential home that is under investigation for child abuse or neglect present a child to ensure their safety and well-being.

Knowingly violating that process could result in a class A misdemeanor and failure to complete a criminal background check could result in a class B misdemeanor. 

“We don’t know about the existence of these facilities until, unfortunately, when something bad happens,” said Ingle, a former Children’s Division investigator. “There’s nothing more important than us protecting the children in the state of Missouri. And this is something that we can do.”

The bills were based off of recommendations the committee issued after lawmakers held a hearing on the issue in November.

“There is not one thing that we’re asking them to do that a good business person would not do,” Veit said. “I don’t care if you’re religious or you’re not, you would do these things.”

Veit stressed lawmakers are not opposed to religious facilities, and the bills note they would not give government agencies the authority to regulate, control or influence “the form, manner, or content of the religious curriculum, program, or ministry” of facilities operated by religious organizations.

Allegations of abuse in facilities has been an ongoing problem for decades, and the issue has received renewed calls for change after The Kansas City Star’s investigations 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.

Many former students recounted those experiences for lawmakers Wednesday in an emotional two-hour hearing.

Allen Knoll said he was 10 years old when he was first sent away. After spending time at Bethel Boys Academy in Mississippi, he was sent to Agape Boarding School in Missouri.

“I was that boy standing on the wall. I was that boy that was restrained for two months straight every single day. That was me, because sometimes I didn’t want to go to church,” Knoll said. “I didn’t have a choice.”

Knoll said staff at facilities told parents and residents in the community to not believe students’ stories, casting them as troubled kids. His calls home were routinely monitored, Knoll said.

“They will hang up your phone if you start talking about anything there,” Knoll said. “They will call your parents and say, ‘He’s been acting up. He’s manipulating you. Don’t worry, your child’s in good hands.’”

Amanda Obrien, the daughter of Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch owners Boyd and Stephanie Householder, said she had to serve as a staff member at the facility in Humansville, Missouri.

“Being a staff, I was forced as a teenager to restrain my friends that were my age that were in these boarding schools — for stupid things.”

Many former students who testified Wednesday described being sent to facilities in Missouri from out of state. Twenty years ago Missouri was considered a haven for these schools, said Jessica Seitz, the director of public policy for Missouri KidsFirst, which works to protect children from abuse and neglect.

“We’ve got to protect children, ensure our state is not a hospitable place for predators. It’s time,” Seitz said. “I don’t want to see another 20 years go by.”

For Shelva Thomas Jackson, who is from Crosby, Texas, sending her son to Master’s Ranch Christian Academy in Missouri felt like the right thing to do at the time. It was the cheapest option she could find at $42,000. But now she regrets it.

“He had to be a ward of the state for Texas to be able to take him into a program. Missouri is any willy nilly. I just drop him off,” Jackson said. “I can’t believe I did that.”

Former students from boarding schools in other states whose operators later relocated to Missouri also came to share their experiences. Emily Adams said she had attended the Bethesda Home for Girls in Mississippi, for about 17 months.

“Had a long dirt road. We call it the road to hell. It was way out in the boonies. Can’t run, there’s nowhere to go,” Adams said. “And there’s this big sign, red white and blue, that said ‘Bethesda Home for Girls.’ It should have said, ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’”

Kelly Schultz, the director of the Office of Child Advocate, which investigates complaints against the Children’s Division and reviews allegations of abuse, said she could have written some of Wednesday’s testimony “word for word, current day” based on cases she reviews.

The proposed legislation does not set up a licensure or registration process, Schultz said — a point some lawmakers had previously expressed opposition to.

“This is notification for bare minimum of what it’s going to take to protect children,” Schultz said.

Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, a Republican from Arnold and chairwoman of the committee, questioned how reports of abuse and neglect fell through the cracks under Missouri’s current laws and wondered what would prevent similar failures if the bills were to be enacted.

Caitlin Whaley, DSS’ director of legislation and communications, said current Missouri law does not provide the department with mechanisms to oversee unlicensed facilities.

“What we found in these facilities is a culture of restricted access,” Whaley said. “The department can’t force a facility to produce a child.”

Rep. Dottie Bailey, a Republican from Eureka, pushed back on DSS’ testimony and said the department should have reached out to lawmakers sooner if they were aware of the issue.

“I’m sick of the departments in this state, saying, ‘Sorry, we can’t be held accountable,’” Bailey said. “Just ridiculous. And the egregious things that are happening to these people, somebody needs to be accountable for it.”

Emily van Schenkhof, the executive director of the Children’s Trust Fund, said Missouri’s laws have been like taking a wire cutter and cutting “ a giant chink in the fence that protects our kids.”

Former students urged lawmakers to not leave that gap open any longer.

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

This article originally appeared on The Missouri Independent: ‘Road to hell’: Students who faced abuse at Missouri boarding schools call for action