Missouri lawmakers seek answers from DSS on oversight gaps of unlicensed reform schools

By Tessa Weinberg
Missouri Independent

State lawmakers grilled the head of the Department of Social Services Wednesday afternoon for answers on how allegations of abuse and neglect at unlicensed youth residential facilities have been overlooked for years.

Last month, former students described to lawmakers horrific physical and sexual abuse they’ve endured at religious reform schools in Missouri — which are exempt from licensure under state law because of their operation by a religious organization.

“It’s clear that there were numerous signs of serious problems that the department either ignored or failed to act on,” said Rep. Jered Taylor, a Republican from Republic and chair of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight. “And even if the statutory exemption limited the department’s ability to act, it’s puzzling to why the department never came to the legislature and asked for help in changing the law.”

Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic. Photo courtesy of Ben Peters/House Communications

Instead, Taylor said lawmakers only became aware of the situation when they read about it in the news. Investigations by The Kansas City Star found that Christian boarding schools 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.

Wednesday’s hearing rehashed many of the issues previous ones have touched on, with Jennifer Tidball, the acting director of DSS, reiterating the department has no oversight over unlicensed facilities.

“We have no authority from a licensing perspective to regulate or do anything with those facilities at all,” Tidball said. “The way that we could help keep kids safe in those facilities would be through the hotline process…”

While it’s the department’s policy to not place children in unlicensed facilities, in some instances it has done so when ordered by the courts, said Sharie Hahn, DSS’ general counsel.

Tidball stressed the department has taken steps to ensure reports don’t fall through the cracks. In June 2020, Tidball said DSS implemented a new policy to ensure that every call that comes into the state’s Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline is now referred to the department’s Out of Home Investigations Unit to follow-up on those involving residential facilities.

Sara Smith, the deputy director of prevention and safety in DSS’ Children’s Division, said the change would aid in a more consistent response statewide, rather than reports being referred to field offices.

“And so no call is left unattended to,” Tidball said.

Wednesday’s hearing came a day after a bipartisan bill that aims to put in place regulations for such facilities was given initial approval by the House.

House Bill 557, which features a combined version of bills sponsored by Reps. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, and Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, would add requirements like background checks and a notification system for all facilities. The bill must be approved one more time by the House before it can be sent to the Senate.

“There was absolutely no control over these homes,” Viet said on the House floor Tuesday, later adding: “We have both sides of the spectrum looking at the bill and saying, ‘Something needs to be done.’ And this is a least restrictive way to do it.”

The Kansas City Star’s stories have shined a light on an issue that has existed in Missouri for decades and prompted renewed calls for change. Earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Schmitt charged the owners of Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in southeast Missouri with 102 crimes, describing 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 Gov. Mike Parson in November. This week, Parson directed Schmitt to again assist local law enforcement in an investigation into a second school, according to The Kansas City Star.

Over the course of hearings into the issue, Ingle, a former Children’s Division investigator, said Wednesday she’s also received input about oversight issues in licensed facilities, too.

“Typically the facilities that have more allegations are facilities that take the most difficult-to-place kids,” Tidball said.

Tidball said over the summer the department also instituted performance contract measures to better assess the residential facilities the state contracts with. However, discontinuing a contract with a facility may not lead to a revocation of its license or suspension of accepting children, as due process must also be met for the facility, Tidball said.

DSS may stop intake, reduce the number of children in a facility or put a facility on a corrective action plan, Tidball said. But low staffing levels can also prove a hindrance.

“I mean honestly, we aren’t staffed at a level where I can have a licensing worker there everyday, eyes on, a lot of times when we’re in this situation,” Tidball said. “But we certainly are staffed adequately so that we can have someone in the facility that’s trained to have eyes on kids to make sure that, first of all, we’re seeing progress in the corrective action plan. And then second of all, we’re making sure that kids are safe and cared for.”

Lawmakers on the committee requested follow-up info on a wide range of issues that DSS did not have immediate answers to. Taylor said lawmakers plan to hold a second hearing in the next few weeks.

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