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‘We are finally being heard.’ Students cheer as Missouri passes reform school bill

·7 min read

They’ve reported abuse for years, telling their parents, friends and even law enforcement what happened to them inside some of Missouri’s Christian boarding schools.

But they were cast aside, often dismissed as lying, troubled teens who were only trying to manipulate their families and school staff. They say they never truly felt heard.

Until Thursday.

On a vote of 147-1 on the next-to-last day of the 2021 legislative session, the House concurred with the Senate’s version of the Child Residential Home Notification Act that was passed on Tuesday. Former students, who now live across the nation, cheered the vote many thought would not happen.

“After decades, we are finally being heard and believed,” said James Griffey, who attended Agape Boarding School from 1998 to 2001 and flew from California to speak at the Senate hearing on the bill last month. “It doesn’t stop here, though. We will keep speaking out and following them, no matter what state they run to next.”

The measure aimed at stopping abuse and neglect at Missouri’s unregulated Christian boarding schools now heads to Gov. Mike Parson. If he signs it, the legislation will immediately go into effect, marking the first time in at least four decades that the state will have some oversight of unlicensed, faith-based facilities.

Parson’s office would not say what action he planned to take on the measure.

“This particular legislation is some of the most important that we are going to pass in this entire year,” said Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, just before the House vote. “Being able to protect, and to protect those most vulnerable in our society, the children that we have that are in our state, those children that are faced with the challenges that they have, and especially these children that you are helping to protect.

“We can be proud this state has passed this legislation. … I certainly hope that our attorney general, and I hope that those people out there that are taking advantage of small children will take note of this and know that they can run but they cannot hide. And that we will find them and we will take care of them.”

Allen Knoll, who attended Agape Boarding School in Stockton from 1999 to 2001, said former students are watching closely to see what Parson will do.

“I hope the governor signs the bill quickly and acknowledges the state has failed these kids in the past,” said Knoll, who came from the Seattle area in February and again in April to testify at the House and Senate committee hearings. “For too many years, we survivors were ignored or dismissed as troubled or angry. It’s good to see that the world is beginning to listen to the thousands of survivors that have the same story.”

The legislation — identical bills sponsored by Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, and Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville — was prompted by the revelation of abuse and neglect allegations at several Missouri schools. Among the facilities are Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, whose owners now face 102 criminal charges of abuse and neglect, and Agape Boarding School. Both schools are in Cedar County, and both are under investigation by the Missouri Attorney General’s office and county authorities.

The lone “no” vote on the measure was that of Rep. Michael Davis, a Kansas City Republican.

Veit said he’s confident the governor will sign the bill.

“I think everybody expects he’s going to pass it,” he said. “I have no reason to doubt that he will sign it.”

He credited the bill’s passage to the former boarding school students who shared their stories with lawmakers.

“These kids deserve all the credit for this,” Veit said. “They have stepped forward and shared their personal lives. And they’re adults, and that’s hard to do that.”

The legislation also follows The Star’s months-long investigation of faith-based reform schools, which a 1982 law allows to claim an exemption from Missouri’s licensing requirement. The statute also says that the state Department of Social Services cannot require those claiming an exemption to prove that they should be exempt.

Because of the state’s current lax law, Missouri has become a safe harbor for unlicensed facilities, some that have been investigated or shut down in other states. They often settle in rural and secluded parts of the state where they can fly under the radar.

The new legislation would require all faith-based boarding schools to register with the state and mandate federal criminal background checks for all employees and volunteers. The schools also would have to comply with fire, safety and health regulations.

Failure to comply with notification and health and safety inspections, or if a facility is suspected of abuse or neglect, could result in the boarding school being shut down or the removal of children.

Bill sponsors have said that the shared — and similar — stories from former students were crucial in getting the measure passed in both chambers. Lawmakers were emotional when they heard the personal accounts.

Dozens of former students also submitted testimony to the House and Senate committees that handled the legislation.

“My goal is to warn parents and legislators about the dangers of these places before it’s too late and more end up like me for the rest of their lives,” wrote Brett Harper, who was “physically, psychologically and verbally abused” while at Agape and still suffers from PTSD, Major Depressive Disorder and has sciatica and a fissured disc. “Please consider this bill as a very small step. We need more steps to be taken to protect children but let’s at least draw the line here.”

In the past 2 1/2 years, Harper — who attended Agape from 1999-2003 — said he has contacted the county prosecutor, the governor’s office and the Cedar County sheriff’s department several times. He also sent a link to dozens of testimonials from former students to the sheriff’s office and said he spoke to a deputy one year ago.

When it comes to Agape, Harper said, everyone told him that it wasn’t their responsibility. No one listened, he said.

Maggie Drew wrote to lawmakers about her experience at Circle of Hope from October 2007 to January 2013. She also told The Star that she witnessed sexual abuse and how it was covered up. She said food was often withheld as punishment. And girls would be restrained on the ground, she said, and she and other girls sometimes would be ordered to help hold them down. She said she witnessed sexual abuse and the coverup that followed.

“Please help us do better for the next generations of kids,” Drew said in her testimony. “They don’t need the physical problems I have, or the night terrors I get, or the loss of appetite and the inability to vocalize and communicate with people like I had to work through thanks to the trauma I got from a place that went unchecked for far too long.

“No one deserves to feel this turmoil and pain, especially not children, no matter how hard they are to handle.”

A legislative effort to change the law in 2003 died in the House after intense pressure from opponents who said it would interfere with religious freedom. But sponsors of the new bill and child advocates insist the issue is not about religion.

Under the legislation, no government agency would be allowed to regulate or control the content of a school’s religious curriculum or the ministry of a school sponsored by a church or religious organization.

The proposal had a smooth ride in the House, but the measure was challenged on the Senate floor Tuesday, with four lawmakers speaking against it, some arguing that there are already laws on the books that protect children who are abused and anything further would only threaten religious practice and freedom.

Three of those opponents have unlicensed boarding schools in their districts. The fourth said he had some schools “in and near” his district.

The final Senate vote was 23-9.

Griffey, the former Agape student, said this “small step in the right direction” is crucial to protect kids in these schools now.

“I know this doesn’t stop the abuse from happening,” Griffey said. “But what happened in Missouri has gained international attention, and now it’s going to be even harder for these types of places to continue to ruin lives and wreck homes.”

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