JEFFERSON CITY — The sponsor of a proposal to regulate religious boarding schools is hopeful of it garnering support in the Missouri House after the Legislature returns from spring break Monday.
The legislation, filed in response to allegations of mistreatment at unregulated faith-based programs, cleared the House Rules Committee last week, a day after Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced more than 100 felony charges against a couple accused of abusing girls at Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, a Christian reform school in southwest Missouri’s Cedar County.
Charges include 80 counts 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.
The legislation was inspired by investigative reporting by The Kansas City Star about Circle of Hope, Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, said during a news conference Thursday. Ingle and Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, are co-sponsoring the bill to regulate the schools.
“We found out that the owners of that facility had numerous preponderance of evidence findings for child abuse and neglect and continued to have access to vulnerable youth,” Ingle said. “And so that was what brought my attention to this issue which appears to be systemic throughout the state.”
Religious boarding schools are exempt from normal licensure requirements. Ingle and Veit’s proposal would ensure that exempt schools notify the Department of Social Services that they exist and comply with safety standards such as fire inspections, health inspections and maintaining medical records.
All residential programs would have to conduct background checks of employees; allow parents access to their children; and provide adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care to students.
The proposal also gives Social Services more power to investigate abuse allegations, and the provisions could be enforced with fines, misdemeanor charges or shutting down the school and removing children.
The sponsors worked with child advocates, government agencies and the faith community to ensure the legislation had broad support, Ingle said.
“This bill has been endorsed by the head of the Missouri Baptist Convention. It’s been endorsed by the Catholic Conference,” she said. “We believe that faith has an absolutely integral role in the lives of all Missourians who choose to have faith in their life, but we think that abuse is abuse no matter where it occurs, and we’re very, very proud that the religious leaders of this state agree with us and endorse the bill.”