JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers lashed out at a Missouri child welfare official Wednesday for not alerting the Legislature about alleged abuse inside Christian reform schools.
In a hearing that grew fiery at times, members of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight grilled Jennifer Tidball, acting director of the Missouri Department of Social Services. They wanted to know about missteps in cases like the one involving Circle of Hope Girls Ranch, where the state knew about abuse reports for many years before girls were removed and charges filed.
“How does this happen?” asked Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, who repeated the question two more times. “I’m thinking about kids — the kids. Now we have kids being allegedly raped, allegedly sodomized, allegedly abused, allegedly neglected, allegedly all these things... Talk about the elephant in the room. That’s why we’re here.”
DSS has said a nearly 40-year-old law that exempts faith-based boarding schools from state oversight has limited the agency’s ability to take action.
Boyd and Stephanie Householder, who owned Circle of Hope in Cedar County until it closed in September, have been charged with 102 crimes — all but one are felonies — that include statutory rape, sodomy and physical abuse.
Later in the nearly four-hour hearing Wednesday, Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, reiterated Bailey’s concern:
“Why did we not fight harder for these kids?” Ingle said. “Child abuse is child abuse, regardless of where the child is located and who’s taking care of them... I just don’t know how to respond to my constituents and the people of the state of Missouri and the parents of these kids who found out two years after we made credible findings why these people continued to have access to their kids.
”We knew about this. We knew about it, and I don’t have an answer for them.”
Lawmakers’ frustration included a lack of state action and what they view as a top-heavy organization that doesn’t have enough “boots on the ground.” They said it appears state social workers are afraid to talk with legislators about their concerns.
Committee members said they need to hear from those inside the system about what isn’t working and what legislation may be needed to address it.
Wednesday’s hearing was the second of the oversight committee, which is examining what the Department of Social Services knew about abuse allegations at several unlicensed boarding schools and why it didn’t act sooner. Next Wednesday, the committee will hear public testimony from people directly affected by the problems inside the state’s reform schools.
“We’ve seen stories in recent months that have made it too clear that there are some serious cracks or concerns in the system that too many children have fallen through,” said Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, chairman of the committee.
Taylor said members were aware that there’s an exemption in state law that allows these schools to go unmonitored.
“But we also know that there are numerous hotline calls that were made because of the abuse that took place,” he said. “It’s clear that there were numerous signs of serious problems that the department either ignored or failed to act on.”
Even if the statutory exemption limited the department’s ability to act, Taylor said, “it’s puzzling to why the department never came to the Legislature and asked for help in changing the law. It’s also troubling that the legislative colleagues and I only became aware of the situation when we read about it in the news.”
The Star has been investigating Christian boarding schools in Missouri for months, and former students — including many from Circle of Hope — have recounted stories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse they say were inflicted by staff and fellow students.
The first story on Circle of Hope in September prompted Ingle to request a hearing, which led to legislation now moving through the General Assembly that would for the first time require some regulation of these schools.
Tidball told legislators on Wednesday she wasn’t even aware of the alleged abuse inside the schools until recently.
Taylor followed up.
“Why haven’t we heard from any of the case workers that know of these issues that we’ve seen ... since at least 2006?” he asked. “Why aren’t we hearing from the ground up on this?”
He and other lawmakers were concerned that social workers felt they couldn’t discuss problems with legislators because of fear of retaliation. Tidball denied that and said her workers do talk to lawmakers and there’s no repercussions for that. People should not be afraid to have conversations, she said.
“You’re telling me that they have the freedom to talk to me, and interact with me and answer my questions without any fear of getting in trouble with you or the department?” said Rep. J. Eggleston, R-Maysville.
Tidball said workers can’t talk about specific cases because of confidentiality but said they were free to talk to lawmakers.
“We had heard otherwise,” Eggleston said.
“After this conversation, I’ll send something out to the entire department,” Tidball said. Taylor asked to be copied on that email.
On Wednesday, Bailey often directed harsh questions toward Tidball.
“We’re the people making policy to help these kids — policy that we didn’t know needed to be changed, again, until The Kansas City Star broke it,” Bailey said. ”We probably wouldn’t know even today unless they broke it. ...
“How are we supposed to write policy? I guess we’ll just call The Kansas City Star and say, ‘Hey, do you know what’s going on?’”
Taylor wanted to know why lawmakers haven’t been made aware of the problems with the law regarding exempt boarding schools.
“We’ve known that we’ve had issues at these unlicensed facilities. Why are we just now hearing about it? Why in the last 10 years hasn’t this been a priority, or at least in the last two years, been a priority to put it on the legislative priority list or for someone within the department to come to us and say hey, we’ve got an issue?” he asked Tidball.
One reason, Tidball said, was the case of Heartland Christian Academy, a school in northeastern Missouri that became the subject of national headlines in 2001 after a call to the state hotline reported students being forced to stand in ankle- to chest-deep cow manure as a punishment.
Several months later, after two more allegations of abuse were lodged against the facility, authorities raided the school and removed 115 children, prompting a series of lawsuits and challenges that took years to wind through the courts. In the end, felony child abuse charges against five employees were either dropped or the staffers were acquitted. Owner Charles Sharpe and his school also were cleared of any wrongdoing and the state settled with Heartland, agreeing to pay extensive attorney fees and court costs.
“The elephant in the room for everyone — and we even experienced this when things kind of broke last fall — is Heartland,” Tidball said.
“There are people who work for the department...that remember the Heartland case. The reality is every time that these unlicensed facilities would come up, everyone was like, we don’t want another Heartland. People were afraid to have another Heartland because it was so high-profile.”
The other reason, Tidball said, is that the issue “is not something that anyone has ever brought up to me.”
Tidball has been acting director for two years, but at the department for 25 years. She previously served as deputy director.
Lawmakers said they were frustrated by some of the officials’ answers and what some viewed as the agency’s defiant attitude and refusal to come to lawmakers to help fix the problem.
Bailey pushed back.
“Nice gig for you all to make your own rules too and investigate yourselves with no accountability,” she said. “That’s astounding. And we’ll be told to shove off and go about your business.”
Tidball offered to sit down with her and discuss any concerns.
Bailey had more to say.
“You’ve got your own little private company there,” she told Tidball. “We’re spoken to very arrogantly and indignant when we ask questions. The arrogancy of this governmental department is unbelievable. And the crying shame is these kids who will never have a life again.