(Jefferson City) -- The work of the Missouri Children’s Division is being reviewed after abuse allegations involving several faith-based boarding schools went under the public’s radar for years. An investigation by the Kansas City Star has found students at some of these places have been beaten, raped, starved, restrained, and isolated.
Some former students have made the allegations against Agape Boarding School and Legacy Boys Academy in Stockton, Masters Ranch in far southern Missouri, and Circle of Hope Girls Ranch near Humansville.
Circle of Hope closed last month after the owners were charged with 102 total felonies in connection with abuse allegations. They remain in jail without bond.
Missouri and South Carolina are the only states in the nation with an exemption to allow religious boarding schools to go unchecked. The state House has passed a bipartisan bill that would regulate these schools.
Representatives Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, and Keri Ingle, D-Kansas City, are sponsoring the legislation. It would require safety inspections, background checks for all employees, and the schools must notify the state of their existence. The measure would also give the Missouri Department of Social Services and courts more power to investigate child abuse in the schools. The proposal has not yet been assigned to a Senate committee.
During a Missouri House Government Oversight Committee hearing, Representative Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, referred to a Children’s Division organizational chart provided to the committee.
“This bureaucracy – this red tape – this is why people hate government. Right here. Right here. People hate government because of this. I hate government many days because of that,” said Bailey. “This organizational chart is so middle-heavy, top-heavy, whatever you want to call it. So, we need people on the ground and the information needs to flow. When you have this information, it isn’t going to flow. When we need boots on the ground and we’ve got 60 managers managing each other, we have problems. The bulk of the staff is in offices – why? Why aren’t boots on the ground taking care of these kids and I go back to how we all got here. And I guess I actually answer my own question – how does something like Circle of Hope happen? Well, I just look at the organizational structure.”
Acting Director Jennifer Tidball, with the Missouri Department of Social Services, said she agrees there are not enough boots on the ground and there is work being done to address the organizational structure.
Tidball said the state has about 1,200 caseworkers. In fiscal year 2020, Missouri’s Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline fielded about 154,000 calls.
Representative Jered Taylor, R-Nixa, the chairman of the committee, asked why the department has not informed lawmakers about the problems at these unlicensed schools sooner. Tidball pointed to a number of factors, including not wanting to “repeat” how Heartland Christian Academy was handled.
In 2001, Heartland was raided after reports of abuse. Some 100 students were removed from the location but were allowed to return days later. Five employees were charged but all were either acquitted or had charges dropped. Missouri ended up settling the court case.
She said others, like the courts and juvenile officers, are also involved in abuse and neglect investigations. Tidball said at times staff are hesitant to upset that balance.
Tidball said she could have done more to find out about the problems, but partially blamed the department’s organizational structure.
“Should I have dug deeper? Should I have known more about what was going on in the Children’s Division? I can take responsibility for that. But I think that part of it is you had people that were following chain of command. It wasn’t getting up to me,” she said.
Representative J. Eggleston, R-Maysville, questioned Tidball if workers are retaliated against for talking to legislators.
“They do have the freedom – if you go to them and say, ‘How’s it going in the department?’ Absolutely and I know that happens because I will hear from legislators around what they are hearing in their districts and we sit down and talk about that. But there’s no retaliation for that. That’s their right to be able to do that as a citizen and as a state employee,” said Tidball.
“We had heard otherwise,” said Eggleston. “We had heard that, ‘No. You are not to be talking to legislators. You need to send them up.’ Really, the only three people that we could interact with in the department, is you three right here.”
Tidball says they have the freedom to talk to lawmakers, but they cannot mention confidential information. She said she will email workers to make clear what they can and cannot say or do.
Representative Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, said she and other members of the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect have received emails from boots on the ground fearing retaliation.
“They weren’t speaking of specific cases – more about the management style and approach, the threats where they either A, feel that they have been retaliated against for saying, ‘Hey we missed something or trying to insist on having a more in-depth look at a particular issue within a case and have been retaliated against or in just udder and complete fear,” she said. “It’s one thing to sort of give the, ‘Hey this is okay.’ And then the individuals who in charge of managing particular the boots on the ground, in the home people, still taking that strong-arm approach to not talking to legislators is extremely problematic. I just want everybody under the sound of my voice to know that they are going to do it anyway.”
Tidball told Proudie to send her the complaints – without names attached.
“I think making clear what the department policy, then that puts us in a position to deal with managers who aren’t following it – from an HR perspective,” said Tidball.
Proudie said any supervisors who are using this approach are also breaking Missouri’s Whistleblower law.
Taylor’s office says the committee plans to hold a hearing next week for the public to offer testimony. The date and time are still being finalized.