House committee to review emails between Missouri lawmakers and Circle of Hope owners

The emails were obtained through an open records request by House Minority Leader Crystal Quade

Tessa Weinberg
Missouri Independent
Reps. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa, and J. Eggleston, R-Maysville, listen during a Feb. 17, 2021 hearing of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight. Photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications

A Missouri House committee investigating the state’s response to reports of abuse and neglect at youth residential facilities will be reviewing years of emails between two fellow GOP lawmakers and boarding school operators who are now facing nearly 100 felony charges.  

The emails — obtained through an open records request by House Minority Leader Crystal Quade and turned over to the House Special Committee on Government Oversight on Tuesday — show Stephanie Householder, an owner of the reform school Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in southwest Missouri, in regular contact with Republican Rep. Mike Stephens of Bolivar and Sen. Sandy Crawford of Buffalo.

Householder, who was charged with 21 felony counts earlier this year, kept the two lawmakers apprised of local law enforcement and child protective services investigations, relayed allegations of abuse and shared positive testimonials from students and parents.

In response, Stephens — whose district includes Circle of Hope — offered the assistance of the two lawmakers. He also shared his perspective directly with Department of Social Services officials.

Rep. Jered Taylor, a Nixa Republican and chair of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight, said the committee’s inquiry has not expanded into fellow lawmakers. But the committee will be reviewing Stephens’ and Crawford’s emails.

“When Rep. Quade says that she’s going to give us the records, there’s probably a reason, and we probably need to look at it,” Taylor said. “I’ll be able to know a little bit more once I see it.”

The committee’s inquiry has resulted in a series of hearings since March which have broadened in scope to include both licensed and unlicensed facilities, layoffs of Children’s Division employees and the department’s underreporting of findings of abuse and neglect.

Members of the House Democratic Caucus look on as Minority Floor Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, addresses the media on the final day of the legislative session on May 14, 2021. Photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications

Quade, a Springfield Democrat, said she filed the requests after Stephens’ and Crawford’s names were raised in closed-door hearings the committee held in April. She said GOP leadership, including Taylor and House Speaker Rob Vescovo, was made aware of her records requests before she filed them. Vescovo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Independent learned of the Democrats’ inquiry through a separate records request. The emails were subsequently provided under Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

Quade said she couldn’t comment on the context or provide any details about the confidential testimony that inspired her records requests. Nor would she specify who was providing testimony to the committee, citing concerns that individuals providing information to the committee may lose their jobs.

But she said the testimony raised enough concerns within the committee to warrant the unusual step of filing records requests for the emails of her legislative colleagues.

“The last thing that I want to have happen is elected officials potentially interfere with any sort of investigation that our Children’s Division staff are working on, again, with the goal of keeping our kids safe,” said Quade. “These emails show that there, at a minimum, (is) a relationship and potential involvement in these claims.”

In an interview with The Independent, Stephens said he was simply trying to advocate for his constituents and called the Democratic records request “an obvious fishing expedition.” Stephens said his situation is not typical, noting that prior to becoming his constituents, many youth residential facilities were customers of his pharmacy business for years.

He called accusations of applying political pressure to interfere with child abuse investigations “the farthest thing from the truth.”

“I am not trying to undo, or get in the way, or anything,” Stephens said. “These people are people that I’ve known, that I’ve worked with, that I’ve dealt with, and they have a story to tell. And they are my constituents. And I think it’s more than proper for me to speak up in their behalf, as long as it is made clear that I am in no way trying to proclaim their innocence.”

Crawford did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Adam Woody, the Householders’ attorney, said he is not familiar with the specifics of the emails and is not in a position to comment.

Child welfare advocates, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they were not surprised by the boarding schools’ outreach to lawmakers seeking their support. 

However, they were concerned by the lawmakers’ level of involvement during an ongoing investigation, which they said is not typical in their experience. They were ultimately discouraged, they said, that kids were not being believed.

“I do think it’s the responsibility of the legislator to balance their pre-existing relationship with the party and the allegations of child abuse and not take a side,” said a child welfare advocate, who asked their name not be used over concern it would impede the state’s progress on the issue.

Another advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern about how it would impact their organization’s ongoing relationships with legislators, described the facilities’ cultivation of community support as an intentional tactic to mislead.

“What these organizations have done over time is groom their communities and legislators to see them as valuable entities within their communities because that gave them access to children,” the advocate said. “And they used the community goodwill that they had as a shield and as an ability to limit accountability and oversight.”

Circle of Hope

Circle of Hope Girls Ranch, which was shutdown after law enforcement removed girls from the property last August, is located in Humansville in southwest Missouri in both Stephens and Crawfords’ legislative districts.

An investigation by The Kansas City Star into Christian boarding schools found that Circle of Hope had six substantiated reports of abuse and neglect. But despite that, former students at Circle of Hope said their calls for help were ignored, and described enduring horrific emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

DSS officials said state statute provided them little means of oversight because the facility was operated by a religious organization and therefore exempt from licensure.

In March, Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office charged Stephanie Householder, along with her husband Boyd Householder, with a total of 102 criminal charges, all but one of them a felony. They have pleaded not guilty. The Householders were released on bond Friday due to alleged health issues, including contracting COVID, and are on home confinement as they await a pending trial, The Star reported.

For years prior to their charges, the Householders had been keeping Stephens and Crawford informed about ongoing investigations and allegations of abuse.

Stephens said in an interview that he has known the Householders for years and has visited Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch several times.

“They’ve always been very, very nice people. But Stephanie can be stern,” Stephens said. “Were boundaries crossed at times? Did things happen that never should have? I cannot know.”

He has previously said he never received a complaint about the facility or the Householders. Asked if he ever felt it was necessary to notify the authorities when hearing of the allegations Householder relayed, Stephens said law enforcement was already investigating at the time.

“The process was already way in motion by the time I was aware that some of this was going on,” Stephens said.

Emails with lawmakers

Rep. Mike Stephens, R-Bolivar. Photo by Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications

In a May 11, 2018, email — the earliest one Househoulder sent to Stephens and Crawford that was included in the records request — Householder recounts being interviewed separately for over an hour by child protective services and a Cedar County Sheriff’s deputy.

That deputy, who has since retired, recently testified that she wasn’t permitted to talk to many students in 2018 as part of an earlier investigation, The Star reported.

Householder wrote in the May 2018 email that she was notified she was a suspect in a criminal case the deputy was pursuing. She recounted being asked about mental health treatment for students, methods the Householders used and refusing allowing medics to treat or speak with a girl who passed out — an interaction Householder disputed.

“She even asked if we felt we were God. Our attorney stopped this questioning,” Householder wrote.

Later that day, Householder reached out to parents informing them that during the questioning their daughter was named a victim. Householder wrote to them that her attorney asked the parents’ speak about girls being forced to lose weight and issue a statement about a social worker not returning their calls.

Householder sent both parents’ testimonies to Stephens and Crawford.

Nineteen days later, on May 30, 2018, a Missouri Highway Patrol sergeant opened an investigation into allegations of abuse at the facility. Despite the monthslong investigation that included interviewing more than a dozen former students and staff, charges were never filed, The Star reported.

In a late July 2018 email to Stephens, Householder shared a finding from the Department of Social Services. The document was not included in the records produced in response to the records request.

“As you will see, it shows the girls make up lies to get their own way,” Householder wrote, noting one girl’s testimony was the “truthful” one over another’s.

“That looks like very good news,” Stephens wrote back later that afternoon, “If not absolute exhortation.”

Stephens went on to express hope that the Cedar County Sheriff’s Office would soon “follow suit” and that he would like to believe the episode “will create a clearer understanding on the part of officials in dealing with these situations but I am fast (losing) faith in them.”

“God Bless you for the wonderful work you have devoted your lives to. Please let me know if I can assist you in any way,” Stephens wrote.

In addition to receiving updates directly from Householder, Stephens indicated in emails that he was kept informed about the Householders’ case through attorneys at the Kirksey Law Firm, which previously represented the couple.

In late February 2019, Householder shared updates with Stephens on her family’s situation. She and her son, but not her husband, had received discovery requests “from CPS,” she wrote.

“We think they are fishing for ways to ‘hang him,’” Householder wrote of her husband.

Sen. Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo, pictured with Agape Boarding School students and staff at the Missouri Capitol in 2014 when she was a state representative. Screenshot of email

Stephens replied he would try to keep up with her case “with Jay even though he’s very limited on how much he can tell me,” in reference to Jay Kirksey, the owner of Kirksey Law Firm in Bolivar.

Kirksey did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On May 26, 2020, Stephens received a meeting notice for a phone call conference scheduled with Householder for two days later.

On the day of Stephens scheduled meeting with Householder, he sent an email congratulating David Wood, a former state representative from Versailles who was leaving the House of Representatives to become the new Children’s Division director at the time.

“I often found behind a caring facade, personal agendas,CYA and… sometimes retribution,” Stephens said of agency employees. “I’m sure there are many sincere people in the agency trying to do an impossible job and I don’t intend to sour the air.”

In an interview, Stephens said he encountered a “screw you attitude” when trying to advocate for facilities.

Stephens characterized the response he’s gotten when reaching out to DSS to advocate for these facilities as, “You’re just a bunch of goddamn politicians and meddling in something you don’t know about, and I’m not about to bend to political pressure, so go away.”

Rebecca Woelfel, a spokeswoman for DSS, said all meetings between Stephens and the department have been respectful. She reiterated the department can’t discuss information relating to specific child abuse and neglect investigations with legislators, citing state statute that keeps most details confidential.

Quade said whether lawmakers intend to exert influence or not, it’s inevitable by the nature of their title and role.

“We determine whether or not these directors and Children’s Division employees get paid. We oversee their budgets. They are ultimately accountable to us, the legislature,” Quade said. “And so I think that it is completely out of line for an elected official to involve themselves.”

On July 31, 2020, Householder reached out to Stephens again and said parents had taken their daughter out of the facility.

“The father refused to sign any paperwork and refused to allow his daughter to fill out our form the girls fill out as they leave denying abuse,” Householder wrote.

Another girl who was kicked by a horse and hospitalized had been questioned about the facility’s treatment by a social worker, Householder wrote.

The girl was allegedly asked if handcuffs and neck braces were used as punishment at the school, if food was rationed and if students massaged Boyd Householder’s head or were alone with him, Householder wrote to Stephens.

The charging documents for Boyd Householder, filed seven months after the July 31 email, described using neck braces, handcuffing minors’ arms behind their back, including pushing one down the stairs after doing so, and restraining a minor on the ground and force feeding them crackers, among other incidents.

In addition to 55 counts of child abuse and neglect and two for endangering the welfare of a child, he was also charged with nine counts of second-degree statuary sodomy, six counts of second-degree statutory rape, six counts of sexual contact, and a misdemeanor count of child molestation.

A few weeks after Householder’s late July email to Stephens, about two dozen girls would be removed from the facility.

The emails from Stephens’ office also show a former boarding school student reached out in October 2019 asking him to investigate allegations of abuse at Agape Boarding School in Stockton in Cedar County.

In February, the Missouri Highway Patrol opened a criminal investigation into allegations at the school, which is also in both Stephens and Crawford’s districts.

The Attorney General’s Office was directed by Gov. Mike Parson to assist the Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney in an investigation into abuse allegations at Agape in March. It has since recommended charges, The Star reported Friday.

“Please exercise your authority wisely and end child abuse from this institution,” the former student wrote. “This rests in your hands.”

Stephens said he was not aware of the former student’s 2019 email and that it had passed his attention.

‘At this point, it is out of my hands’

Emails produced from Crawford’s office date as far back as 2013, when Capitol newsletters that span her time as a state representative mention visiting with Agape students and staff who visited the Capitol. Some show photos of her smiling next to them.

More recently this year, Crawford encouraged constituents with positive experiences of the boarding schools to reach out and share them with the Attorney General’s office.

Crawford wrote in an April 1, 2021, email that she was familiar with Agape, having visited it a couple of times. She shared the concerns of a couple who credited the school with turning around their son’s behavior.

“As you know, this matter has been turned over to the Attorney General. At this point, it is out of my hands,” Crawford wrote.“I certainly hope the truth comes out in this investigation.”

This past session, lawmakers passed legislation that for the first time requires background checks for facility staff and volunteers, notification with DSS of facilities’ existence and compliance with health and safety standards. The bill also puts in place mechanisms to allow parents unencumbered access to their children and a process to remove children from facilities in instances of suspected abuse or neglect.

Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill into law earlier this month. DSS is working to draft regulations to implement the new law.

Stephens voted in favor of the bill. Crawford was one of nine senators to oppose it, arguing that she still had reservations about intruding on religious facilities. 

Crawford stressed during Senate debate that she does not want to protect anyone who hurts a child, but she felt lawmakers had not heard from the “hundreds” of families who had benefited from the religious boarding schools.

“This is kind of a fight between good and evil. Who’s good and who’s evil,” Crawford said at the time. “And I think the courts will sort out some of the particulars…”

A day after her vote against the bill, Crawford’s office received an email from a woman who said her son is related to the Householders. She wrote that she had visited both Agape and Circle of Hope, and worked at a sister school of Agape. 

“There was something about the place that made my skin crawl,” she wrote of Agape.

“It may be easy to frame this issue around religious freedom but that is not what these facilities are about,” she wrote, later adding: “I witnessed how religion can be used to control and abuse.”

Committee’s next steps

Since the legislative session adjourned in May, the House Special Committee on Government Oversight has not yet held any additional hearings. Taylor said he expects the committee will meet again within the next month or two, noting there are still DSS employees interested in testifying to the committee.

As for reviewing the emails, Taylor — who shares a Capitol office suite with Stephens — said he did not believe it was in the committee’s purview to look into the actions of individual lawmakers, noting if there was any potential misconduct the House Ethics Committee would handle the issue.

“That’s not our role as our committee is set up to do,” Taylor said. “Our committee is set up to hold government departments within our state accountable.”