Missouri lawmaker didn’t turn over emails with boarding schools after records request

Tessa Weinberg
Missouri Independent
State Sen. Sandy Crawford speaks at the Missouri Bankers Association Convention on July 15, 2021. Photo courtesy of the Missouri Governor’s Office

In 2017, a licensed youth residential facility in Bolivar called Home Court Advantage made headlines when a video surfaced depicting staff allegedly beating a student the year before.

It drew the attention of state officials, who had been notified of the video through a report to the Missouri child abuse and neglect hotline. As a result, intake was voluntarily suspended at the facility, according to a late January 2017 Children’s Division memo.

A little more than a month later, the facility’s state representative — Republican Rep. Mike Stephens of Bolivar — had a telephone conference scheduled with the deputy director of the Children’s Division of DSS about the facility.

Over the next year, Stephens was joined by Republican Sen. Sandy Crawford of Buffalo, whose legislative district also includes Home Court Advantage, in meetings with state regulators about the facility.

The meeting notices were turned over by Stephens’ office as part of an open records request through Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Yet despite receiving a similar records request, Crawford did not disclose them.

And it wasn’t the only discrepancy.

Crawford was included on email exchanges with Stephanie Householder, an owner of Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in southwest Missouri who along with her husband face nearly 100 felony charges for child abuse and neglect.

Stephens turned those emails over, but Crawford did not.

The Kansas City Star reported Saturday that the communications with Householder were also not provided in response to the newspaper’s records request filed with Crawford’s office in April.

Both Stephens and Crawford received an invitation in October 2019 for an event for the Good Samaritan Boys Ranch, another licensed youth residential facility. The emailed invitation was not included in the records produced from Crawford’s office.

The records requests were submitted in April to Stephens and Crawford by House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. The documents have since been provided to the House Special Committee on Government Oversight, which is investigating the state’s response to reports of abuse at boarding schools in Missouri.

“A review of the search terms requested, including the clarifications provided to Sen. Crawford’s office, indicates that these records should be encompassed under the search terms submitted to the office,” a memo from Quade’s office sent to committee members read. “The reason for their unavailability in the batch produced by the office of Sen. Crawford is unknown.”

Crawford, who produced records dating as far back as 2013, said in an email to The Independent that she provided “all responsive records maintained by my office” to Quade in response to her request.

But lawmakers who have reviewed the emails in question say the lack of disclosure is troubling.

“It absolutely raises eyebrows,” said Rep. Raychel Proudie, a Democrat from Ferguson and the ranking minority member on the House Special Committee on Government Oversight.

Not receiving complete information is “a huge red flag,” Quade said.

Rep. Scott Cupps, a Republican from Shell Knob who also serves on the oversight committee, said he hadn’t reviewed the emails as of last week. But he said the lack of disclosure doesn’t concern him as it may just be that the senator’s search missed relevant emails.

Patrick Baker, the Missouri Senate’s Administrator, said while the Senate has its own guidelines on records retention, each individual senator sets their own retention policy and serves as custodian of records for their office

A copy of the Sunshine Law policy for Crawford’s office that was provided to The Independent consists of three short paragraphs. It notes that Crawford serves as the custodian of records for her office, shall comply with the Sunshine Law and may charge fees in accordance with it.

Since the 2018 passage of Amendment 1, a constitutional amendment more commonly known as “Clean Missouri,” lawmakers’ emails are now explicitly subject to the state’s open records law. Previously, some lawmakers considered themselves exempt.

Its passage is even referenced in Crawford’s email signature which notes that any communications or documents her office receives may be subject to public disclosure under the Sunshine Law.

Home Court Advantage

Emails produced by Stephens’ office in response to Quade’s request show that since May 2018 Householder kept Stephens and Crawford 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 offered the assistance of the two lawmakers and indicated he was keeping up with the Householders’ case through their attorneys at the time, The Independent previously reported.

Emails from his office also showed that Stephens and Crawford had met with top DSS officials about Home Court Advantage, whose facilities are contracted with the state to provide residential treatment to boys and girls between 8 and 21 years old, including those with psychiatric and behavioral issues.

According to a list DSS provided to the Special Committee on Government Oversight this past session, two of Home Court Advantages’ locations had five preponderance of evidence findings between 2015 to 2020 — three for neglect and two for physical abuse. 

Jack McCrimmon, Home Court Advantage’s owner, said he recalled three incidents, but not five.

DSS declined to provide additional information to The Independent related to the preponderance of evidence findings, including the specific dates they occurred and their outcomes, noting state statute only permits limited disclosure of Central Registry reports.

The first meeting notice included in response to the records request is for a phone conference for March 8, 2017 — a little over a month after intake was suspended at the facility following the video that prompted an investigation by state officials. It was sent by Susan Savage, the deputy director of the Children’s Division in DSS, to Stephens.

By May 25, 2017, intakes were permitted to resume at the facility after the voluntary suspension was lifted.

The following year, there was a subsequent meeting on March 16, 2018, between Crawford, Stephens and then-DSS Deputy Director Jennifer Tidball — this time at Home Court Advantage, where other DSS and Department of Mental Health officials joined.

“We’re hoping to get our relationship back fully engaged with the agencies,” Stephens said at the time, according to the Bolivar Herald-Free Press. “We have gone through a traumatic time this past year. … We wanted you to develop a higher level of comfort with what we’ve done.”

A month-and-a-half later, a meeting regarding Home Court Advantage was scheduled to take place in Crawford’s Capitol office between then-DSS Director Steve Corsi, Children’s Division Deputy Director Julie Lester and Legislative and Constituent Services Director Caitlin Whaley. Stephens legislative assistant at the time was also included on the meeting notice.

More recently in June 2020, DSS officials were emailing back and forth between Stephens and McCrimmon to find a time to meet with a licensing consultant.

From the 2016 incident that the video depicted, two facility staff members were ultimately sentenced to two years of probation, ordered to pay $300 to a county law enforcement restitution fund and do community service after pleading guilty to third degree assault and failure to report child abuse as a mandated reporter, according to the Bolivar Herald Free-Press.

A civil suit against the facility was also dismissed in 2019 after a settlement was reached.

In an interview, McCrimmon said he has since implemented more frequent training for staff, and said both Stephens and Crawford have been a supportive presence over the years.

“I can speak only for Home Court,” he said, “I love having those guys in my corner.”

Crawford did not respond to a previous request for comment regarding Home Court Advantage. McCrimmon said Stephens sits on the board of Home Court Advantage, and Stephens said he first got to know the facility through his pharmacy business. Stephens said he helped meet with regulators to help ensure that things at the facility improved and said the staff involved in the incident that surfaced in 2017 “were completely out of line.”

“I seem to have been in the middle of an exceptionally large number of these cases,” Stephens previously said in an interview with The Independent, later adding: “I have a big heart for them, and for the difficulties that they endure to try to care for these people. And to see them under a bureaucratic gun, I tend to recoil.”