The accusations against Boyd Householder include beatings, restraints in stress positions, humiliations (one girl’s face was shoved in horse manure) and other abuse, according to court documents. Stephanie Householder, Boyd’s wife, is the subject of 22 of the charges. The Householders, who closed the school in August, have pleaded not guilty; their estranged daughter Amanda differs, telling the Kansas City Star she believes the charges “100 percent.”
Before founding Circle of Hope in 2006, Boyd Householder worked at nearby Agapé Boarding School, another professedly Christian institution serving parents at wit’s end. Agapé is the Greek word for a beautiful concept: unconditional love. But the attorney general’s investigation has grown to include allegations that a similar culture of abuse exists at that school; no charges have been filed.
Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas, two reporters at the Star, began last fall detailing the results of their examination of religiously themed boarding schools for troubled youths in rural Missouri. It is no accident, Bauer and Thomas explained, that Missouri is where so many parents arrive at wit’s end. The state permits zero — repeat, zero — regulation or oversight of boarding schools that claim to be religious. Such schools are not even required by Missouri to announce their existence to state or local authorities in charge of educational standards or child safety, the pair of reporters found.
“Even after [abuse] reports are substantiated” by law enforcement authorities, “the state still has no authority over the operation of the schools,” they wrote in December.
This is a loophole big enough to drive a church bus through. It’s of a piece with rhetoric in Republican circles that freedom of religion is under assault in one of the world’s most pluralistic nations. The exemption has made Missouri a magnet of the worst kind: At least seven boarding schools have relocated from other states to Missouri after being investigated or shut down for child abuse, the Star has reported.
“The state keeps no records on these unlicensed boarding schools. It doesn’t even know their names, where they are, how many there are or how many students they house,” the newspaper summed up.
Stung by the Star’s reports, Missouri lawmakers convened hearings on the unlicensed facilities when the legislature gathered this year. Former students from throughout the country traveled to Jefferson City to tell their stories of beatings, isolation, food deprivation and other abuse. An official from the Missouri Department of Social Services told one panel that operators of self-styled religious facilities can refuse to allow state investigators to see or speak to students who have complained of mistreatment. Furthermore, the official said, once young people realize that they are trapped beyond many protections of the law, they often withdraw their complaints in hopes of avoiding further abuse.
From those hearings, a bill was offered to require schools to register with the state, provide medical records for their students, and cooperate with background checks of their staff and volunteers. The measure passed the state House last month and has strong bipartisan support in the Senate.
And yet, the schools will continue to have certain advantages — not least the relative isolation of rural Missouri. Cedar County, for example, was reported in the 2010 Census to have fewer than 14,000 residents spread across nearly 500 square miles; the largest city, El Dorado Springs, has only about 3,500 residents in fewer than 1,000 households. Potential conflicts of interest may exist: According to one report, members of the county sheriff’s staff, including two deputy sheriffs, have also worked at Agapé Ranch.
The county prosecutor’s office simply isn’t equipped to pursue major abuse investigations. At Circle of Hope and again at Agapé Ranch, understaffed Cedar County prosecuting attorney Ty Gaither had to seek help from Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) after the Star published its findings.
It’s a good thing if suspected predators will no longer be able to escape the law in Missouri simply by calling themselves Christians. But that’s just one part of the problem. Lawmakers throughout the country should make adolescent mental health care a priority. Struggling children and their parents need high-quality options at affordable prices for the care and education of troubled teens. Only then will wit’s end lead them to solutions rather than to suffering.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.