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Abuse victim advocates pushing Missouri AG to investigate Christian boarding schools

By JIM SALTER, Associated Press
Published: May 14, 2024, 2:06pm

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Advocates for victims of abuse at Missouri boarding schools on Monday urged the state’s attorney general to launch an investigation, work with local prosecutors and take other steps aimed at stemming the tide of abuse.

Three Christian boarding schools in southern Missouri have shut down since 2020 amid wide-ranging abuse allegations levied by current and former students. Several people affiliated with those schools are facing criminal charges. Advocates who worry that more abuse is going unpunished gathered Monday outside Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey’s St. Louis office to demand action.

“This is a structural problem,” said David Clohessy, a longtime advocate for abused children and former leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “These are facilities that are remote, independent, private, sometimes for-profit, largely under the radar with little or no scrutiny, state oversight, monitoring or supervision. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

A spokeswoman for Bailey said in an email that the attorney general’s office does not have jurisdiction to prosecute criminal cases, except when appointed as special prosecutor by the governor or a court.

“As a former prosecutor, Attorney General Bailey takes crime very seriously,” spokeswoman Madeline Sieren said, adding that Bailey “has taken substantive action to combat human trafficking where the law allows.”

Amanda Householder, now 33, is among the former students who claimed she was abused. Her story was different than most, though: Her parents, Boyd and Stephanie Householder, owned Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in remote southern Missouri until it closed in 2020 after investigators removed about two dozen girls.

Boyd and Stephanie Householder are scheduled to go to trial in November on a combined 100 charges accusing them of abusing girls at Circle of Hope. Boyd Householder, 74, was charged with 22 counts of having sexual contact, including sexual intercourse, with one girl who was younger than 17 at the time.

Sieren said the Attorney General’s office is handling prosecution of the Householders — proof that Bailey and the office are taking the issue seriously, she said. Three prosecutors are working on the case, she said.

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Also, 16 former residents said the Householders frequently restrained them with handcuffs, whipped them with belts, taped their mouths shut and struck or punched them for minor offenses such as singing.

Messages were left with attorneys for the Householders. Phones listed as those of the couple have been disconnected.

Amanda Householder sued her parents, accusing them of beating her and forcing her to impose harsh punishments on other girls at Circle of Hope. She announced Monday that the lawsuit was settled but declined to discuss details.

Amanda Householder said she is forming a new nonprofit aimed at helping those victimized at boarding and reform schools.

“We have to be the voices for kids that are going through what we went through years ago,” Householder said.

Other Missouri facilities operating as Christian boarding schools also have come under intense scrutiny in recent years.

Agape Boarding School in Stockton closed in 2023 after abuse allegations. In 2021, Agape’s longtime doctor was charged with child sex crimes and five employees were charged with low-level abuse counts.

In March, ABM Ministries’ Lighthouse Christian Academy in Piedmont shut down after kidnapping charges were filed against the husband-and-wife owners, who were accused of locking a student in a room. A teacher also was charged with abuse for allegedly injuring a 15-year-old boy while boxing.

For decades, Missouri had among the most lax boarding school regulations of any state in the nation. A 1982 state law gave religious boarding schools free rein and the state no way to monitor how kids were educated. Even the state Health Department had no oversight, including for schools that claimed to address mental health, behavioral and addiction issues.

A new law was adopted in 2021 after extensive reporting from The Kansas City Star found that several faith-based boarding schools, including Agape, relocated to Missouri after being investigated or shut down for abuse or neglect elsewhere.

The new law sets minimum health and safety requirements for boarding schools, which still don’t have to be licensed. It mandates background checks for employees; requires adequate food, clothing and medical care for students; and says parents must be allowed access to their children at any time without prior notice.

Several students have run away from southern Missouri boarding schools in recent years, often claiming abuse. Two 15-year-olds went missing Saturday at a boarding school near Ava but were found safe Monday at a nearby cabin. Messages were left with the sheriff. A school official said it isn’t yet clear what prompted the boy and girl to leave.

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This story first published on May 13, 2024 has been updated to correct that the teens who went missing from a school near Ava are a boy and a girl.

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