State system has 'failed' children in faith-based youth homes

BY RACHEL BEHRNDT
Missouri News Network

Victims and advocates allege “cracks and failures” led to the ongoing abuse of many of Missouri’s most vulnerable children.

The House Committee on Children and Families tried to fill some of those cracks Wednesday as it passed HB 557 and HB 560.

The bills would require faith-based youth homes to notify the state of their location, provide background checks for all employees and ensure that Social Services can see a child that it suspects is being abused or neglected.

The vote comes weeks after moving testimony brought lawmakers to tears as victims of these homes told their stories of neglect and abuse that went unchecked by state officials.

The two bills brought before the committee were sponsored by Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, and Rep. Rudy Veit R-Wardsville. They said the legislation would make it harder for the homes to operate unchecked.

Proponents said these facilities took intentional steps to ensure the abuse occurring at their facilities was never reported.

Many of them choose rural towns where obscurity shields them from scrutiny. They also convince children’s parents, local law enforcement and townsfolk that these children are dishonest and manipulative.

Colton Schrag, who testified in the previous hearing, said he witnessed these tactics firsthand while he attended Agape Boarding School in Stockton for three years. He said staff there monitored phone calls and letters to parents.

“I ran away one time and told the cops they’re beating us,” Schrag said. “Cop didn’t care, they cuffed me up and brought me right back to the school. So like, even if you tried to report it, nobody cared.”

Faith-based homes have no obligation to background check their employees, allow the Department of Social Services to see the children in their care or run inspections.

“To be frank, there’s absolutely zero oversight of facilities who have this religious waiver,” Ingle said.

But one advocate said that, while this bill would scare many of the bad actors running abusive homes away, there is a greater problem in Missouri’s child welfare system as a whole that will continue to leave children vulnerable.

The cracks

Emily Van Schenkof has been a child advocate for 10 years. She said she considers herself partially to blame that the faith-based youth homes have been allowed to operate for so long. But she also said that Missouri has a “uniquely weak child welfare system,” which has left children vulnerable.

“In my time, I have seen far too many failures,” Van Schenkof said. “And so I do believe that it’s systemic and that it needs to be addressed.”

The child welfare system functions with three branches — the Department of Social Services, local law enforcement and the courts. According to Van Schenkof, these branches all have to work together seamlessly to protect children.

It starts with DSS, which receives a call to the child abuse hotline. This will either trigger an investigation into alleged child abuse, or it will trigger allocation of resources if the report doesn’t meet the threshold of what is considered abuse or neglect.

An investigation entails a member of the DSS Children’s Division going to the scene with or without law enforcement to investigate.

“It is best practice for those investigations to be jointly done by children’s division workers and law enforcement,” Van Schenkof said. “That does not always occur, sometimes for perfectly appropriate reasons.”

The courts contribute a juvenile officer, who has authority to remove a child when they see it as appropriate. They decide what actions to take using a set of standards established by the Missouri Supreme Court in 2017.

“The cases are referred to us by an investigating agency, and then we focus on the legal basis,” Ruth McCluskey, the juvenile officer for Boone County, said. “And so currently, the juvenile officer is not in the role to investigate child welfare.”

All four of these players have to come together to successfully investigate and prosecute child abuse cases. Van Schenkof said in the case of these youth homes at least – this system missed the mark.

“I am comfortable in saying that these investigations require a multi-disciplinary response between those four entities,” she said. “And that didn’t happen” in the cases of abuse.

DSS, the first line of defense against child abuse in the state, has the least amount of power in these cases. The investigations the Children’s Division conducts are essential to taking further action to remove a child from the care of abusers. However, Children’s Division workers don’t have the authority to force people to produce a child in these cases, nor do they have any physical power to prevent caretakers from disrupting interviews with potential victims, Van Schenkof said.

In a statement via email, Rebecca Woelfel, communications director for the Missouri Department of Social Services, addressed the department’s inability to investigate the youth homes that have recently come under scrutiny.

“Should an agency be exempt from licensure in accordance with 210.516, Missouri law does not give authority to the Department of Social Services to inspect such facilities.”

No more ‘safe haven’

While HB 557 and HB 560 won’t change the structure of Missouri’s child welfare system, advocates insist it will make the state far less likely to host “bad actors” who use the guise of faith-based rehabilitation to abuse children.

“Missouri will no longer be the safe haven for these types of vultures who want to come in and prey upon our kids,” Veit said.

The bill would allow the Children’s Division and juvenile officers to petition for a court order requiring youth homes to make children available to investigators. According to Van Schenkof, this will allow the Children’s Division to properly investigate child abuse claims.

Child homes will also be required to register with the state by stating in part where they are located and proving basic health and safety inspection certificates. Background checks will also be required, and if the home doesn’t comply with any of these rules, there is a mechanism in the law for the homes to be shut down.

One of the most important parts of the bill, according to its advocates, is that it brings Missouri’s law up to speed with other states that have already taken steps to regulate youth homes, making it less attractive to people who would travel from other states to take advantage of weak regulation.

“I absolutely believe that these bills would make substantive and meaningful change for children’s safety in Missouri,” Van Schenkof said.

Changing the structure of the child welfare system, which allowed abuse in these homes over decades, would require much larger, more widespread change.

“Public policy is not typically an exercise in perfection,” Van Schenkof said. “It’s an exercise in slowly and iteratively improving our systems to make real change.”

The bill will now move to the House, where it will be voted on before it can be sent to the Senate and on to the governor’s desk. Viet said he is confident the bill has enough support to make its way into law.