JEFFERSON CITY — A couple accused of abusing girls at Circle of Hope Girls Ranch has been charged with more than 100 felonies, Missouri’s attorney general announced Wednesday.
Boyd and Stephanie Householder, who ran the religious boarding school for troubled girls in southwest Missouri, were scheduled to be arraigned later in the day in Cedar County Circuit Court, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said.
The details of the charges are “not for the faint of heart,” Schmitt said. “As the father of two young girls, it is simply unthinkable that this type of abuse could be perpetrated against those who are so vulnerable, as well as on families of the victims” who trusted Circle of Hope.
They include 80 charges against Boyd Householder, including multiple charges of statutory sodomy, statutory rape, sexual contact with a student and endangering the welfare of a child. He is also charged with more than 50 counts of child abuse and neglect.
Stephanie Householder is charged with 10 counts of abuse or neglect of a child and 12 of endangering the welfare of a child.
Schmitt said he could only give limited details on the victims, but that 16 of them have come forward so far and most were minors when the abuse occurred. He said they came from around the country. Schmitt encouraged other victims to come forward by contacting Melissa Koetting at 573-751-0309.
The Householders shut down their school after authorities removed about two dozen students in August, and have said they have no plans to reopen.
In the past, the state Department of Social Services had substantiated multiple reports of abuse, but the Householders were not charged.
Details of the abuse include slamming girls against walls, placing students in “restraints” while pushing on “pressure points” to cause pain, and leaving students in secluded rooms for extended periods of time, Schmitt said.
“On one occasion, while restrained, the victim said the defendant put a dirty sock in her mouth and sprayed her face with a hose,” Schmitt said. “The water went up her nose and her mouth, making it hard to breathe.”
He said another victim described having her face shoved into horse manure when she was restrained on the ground, causing manure to get in her mouth, while yet another said she was handcuffed and pushed down stairs.
Other charges detailed in packets provided at a news conference Wednesday include allegations of Boyd Householder stepping on and kicking girls, duct-taping their mouths shut, striking them with a belt, and forcing them to drink dish soap and hot sauce.
Schmitt said his office became involved in the case in mid-November after the Cedar County Prosecutor’s Office asked for assistance.
He said the investigation is continuing and his office could consider charges against others.
He also said victims who feel their needs are not being addressed by local authorities can reach out to the attorney general’s office.
“I support making sure that our children are safe and I’m glad that the Legislature is taking a look at some of these issues,” Schmitt said when asked about pending legislation to regulate religious boarding schools.
Missouri Reps. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit and Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, have filed legislation to provide oversight for faith-based boarding schools, which have traditionally been exempt from registering with the state.
The legislation would require those schools to tell the Department of Social Services they exist, comply with basic safety requirements and conduct background checks for all staff members. It would give the department and courts more power to investigate child abuse in faith-based boarding schools.
Ingle said she applauded the work of the attorney general’s office, but stressed the need for change in the state.
“That’s what I think that our bill will help accomplish, the issues that we’re hearing with, you know, unregulated, unlicensed facilities that aren’t completing background checks. Our bill would go a long way into making it easier for investigations to take place,” she said.
Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, said the legislation sponsored by Ingle and Veit was unanimously voted out of the Children and Families Committee, which she chairs. Coleman said she expected the proposal to be approved by the House Rules Committee this week, meaning it could be taken up by the full House soon.
Coleman said Schmitt’s statements aligned with testimony her committee had heard.
“I’m pleased to see that they’re moving forward in seeking justice for these victims,” she said.
Jessica Seitz, director of public policy for Missouri Kids First, called Schmitt’s comments “extraordinary.”
“The words of the attorney general about the scope of this case was astonishing,” she said, yet there is also a need for systemic change, “which requires work on the other side of the street,” in the Legislature.