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‘God is going to hold you accountable’: Rally speakers decry Missouri reform school abuse

‘God is going to hold you accountable’: Rally speakers decry Missouri reform school abuse

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STOCKTON, Mo. — Dozens of people gathered in a southwest Missouri park Saturday within miles of Christian boarding schools where they say abuse has been allowed to continue for years.

“Our goal is to bring awareness to these schools that are still operating in the community,” said rally organizer Amanda Householder, daughter of Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch owners Boyd and Stephanie Householder.

Amanda Householder, who is estranged from her parents, led the effort to shut down Circle of Hope, which closed in September amid allegations of abuse and an ongoing investigation by local and state officials.

She is now focusing on exposing similar problems at other boarding schools. Four faith-based reform schools, including Circle of Hope and Agape Boarding School for boys, are located in Cedar County.

“We’re meeting in the park because we want to get the local community to work with us,” she said. “Once they find out what has been happening, we hope they’ll be supportive.”

Bon Morris, who lives near the park, said he wanted to come to the rally “to show we do care.”

Some in the town have worried about the boys at Agape through the years, he said. “There’s no way to know if they are being treated right.”

A decades-old Missouri statute allows boarding schools like Circle of Hope and Agape to claim a religious exemption, which means they are not required to be licensed and the state has no authority over their operations. Those at the rally hope lawmakers change that, or at least implement some regulations.

Many rally participants attended Circle of Hope or Agape, which is located about 3 miles from the Stockton City Park.

Colton Schrag, who did two stints at Agape from 2004 to 2010, flew in from New Mexico and spoke passionately about a need for change.

“God is going to hold you accountable for how you treated us,” he said. “If we can’t shut them down, we need to get them licensed and we need to get them regulated.”

The Kansas City Star began investigating Missouri faith-based reform schools in September with a report on Circle of Hope. Several young women who have lived at the facility described in vivid detail a place that sounded more like a maximum-security prison than a Christian school for troubled girls.

They told of punishment that included withholding food and water and being forced to stand against a wall for hours on end for even the most minor infraction. And they explained how they were restrained — pinned on the floor with Boyd Householder’s knee pressed on the back of their necks while other girls or staff members pushed as hard as they could on pressure points on girls’ arms and legs.

In a lengthy interview with The Star, Boyd and Stephanie Householder denied all allegations. They said it was all revenge from a group of girls whose lives didn’t turn out well after they left the ranch.

One week ago, The Star published a report on Agape, where 16 former students told similar stories of physical and mental abuse at the boys’ school. Some said they had reported the abuse to local law enforcement but nothing ever came of it.

The Star’s investigation found that the Cedar County sheriff’s department has ties to Agape, employing in some capacity at least three people who have worked at the school — or still do. That includes two full-time deputies.

One, Robert Graves, is a former Agape student and is married to a daughter of Agape founder James Clemensen, The Star found.

Some of the men were talking about their experiences for the first time.

Amanda Miller of Lynden, Washington, said she came to support former students who had suffered abuse at any of the schools.

“They’ve been trying for years to have their voices heard,” she said. “I can’t believe this is still happening. There need to be protections in place to help them.”

After the first Circle of Hope story was published, Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, requested a legislative hearing in Jefferson City. On Monday, lawmakers on the House Children and Families Committee met and heard testimony about how the state has no oversight over these schools.

Ideas discussed Monday included requiring background checks for employees of unlicensed youth facilities, requiring those schools to register with the state in some way and adopting legislation that would require parents to be notified if there’s a substantiated report of abuse or neglect at their children’s boarding school.

Amanda Householder said supporters also plan to go to Jefferson City early next year to encourage lawmakers to pass legislation to hold boarding schools accountable.

“We know of at least five boarding schools that spawned out of Agape,” she said.

And rally participants said the problem is not limited to just Cedar County or Missouri.

“This is an epidemic that is happening in our country,” said Jeneen Miller, who said she suffered abuse at a Christian boarding school in California and spoke at Saturday’s rally.

“By telling our stories, there is hope.”

The weekend rally is scheduled to include a silent walk Sunday around the Agape perimeter and a tribute to several former boarding school residents who rally participants said have committed suicide.

Allen Knoll, who attended Agape from 1999 to 2001, came to the rally from Seattle.

He said he made the trip “to be a voice for all of us that went through abuse at Agape and to bring change and awareness to the industry as a whole.”

“For many of us, this is a healing process,” he said. “And it makes us feel less helpless.”

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