In a recent memo, a top Missouri Democratic lawmaker told a legislative oversight committee that a senator failed to disclose documents requested during an investigation into boarding school abuse.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade told the House Special Committee on Government Oversight that Sen. Sandy Crawford did not turn over her email exchange with an owner of Circle of Hope Girls Ranch that was covered by a Missouri Sunshine Law request. But another southwest Missouri lawmaker did — Rep. Mike Stephens, R-Bolivar, who was also included in those emails.
“There are several records within the batch produced by the office of Rep. Stephens that are not present within the batch produced by the office of Sen. Crawford,” said a summary of the documents that was attached to Quade’s memo to the committee. “The reason for their unavailability in the batch produced by the office of Sen. Crawford is unknown.”
Quade, D-Springfield, submitted the requests “in light of information the committee received in closed hearings conducted as part of its oversight into abuse at residential boarding facilities,” according to her memo.
Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa and chairman of the oversight committee, said he would review all the emails but couldn’t comment until he had read everything.
Crawford’s email exchange with Stephanie Householder, co-owner of Circle of Hope — which the Missouri Independent reported on Tuesday — also was not provided to The Star in the senator’s response to an April request.
That May 11, 2018, email from Householder to Crawford and Stephens detailed an ongoing investigation in which a state child welfare worker and Cedar County deputy had visited the school. In that email, Householder complained about probing questions from the deputy, including why the school didn’t have medical or health certifications.
“She got very angry,” Householder wrote in her email to the two lawmakers, who represent the area where the now-closed Circle of Hope was located and three other boarding schools still operate. “She even asked if we felt we were God. … Later she asked if we get stressed and feel like we carry a heavy burden, and if so how do I deal with it. I shared that I pray and ask God for wisdom and peace, this stunned her and angered her a bit.”
In that police investigation and a subsequent one conducted by the Missouri Highway Patrol — launched less than three weeks after those email exchanges — local and federal prosecutors declined to file charges.
Crawford, a Republican from Buffalo who strongly opposed legislation passed this session to implement some oversight of the state’s unlicensed boarding schools, denied in an email to The Star on Wednesday that she failed to provide all documents covered by the requests.
“I am in receipt of both of your emails dated today concerning your sunshine request dated April 8, 2021 and a sunshine request made by Rep. Crystal Quade,” Crawford said. “Please know that all responsive records retained by this office were provided in response to those requests.”
She didn’t elaborate on why she would not have those emails.
One oversight committee member said legislators must fully comply with open records requests.
“We are beholden to the law,” said Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, who led the effort to pass Missouri’s new boarding school legislation. “And the Freedom of Information law states very clearly that once information is requested in our professional capacity that we are to provide that information.”
Stephanie Householder and her husband, Boyd, are facing 100 charges of child abuse and neglect — all but one are felonies — involving former students at Circle of Hope, which they closed in September amid an investigation by state and local authorities. Another Christian reform school in Cedar County, Agape Boarding School, is currently under investigation for abuse allegations.
Crawford is a member of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Lebanon, Missouri, which, like Agape Baptist Church, is an independent fundamental Baptist church. IFB churches teach followers to separate themselves from worldly influence. Circle of Hope also had ties to IFB churches.
Missouri corporation documents filed with the Secretary of State show that Crawford’s husband, John, is vice president of Tabernacle Baptist. The senator did not respond to a May email from The Star regarding her connection to IFB churches and whether it influenced her stance on ongoing investigations of boarding schools and the proposed oversight legislation.
During the legislative session, Crawford spoke to colleagues about the good works boarding schools in her area had done. Among Crawford’s emails obtained by The Star through its Missouri Sunshine request was one from a woman who said she worked for Agape and had known the school owners for roughly 25 years. She said she worked closely with staff members and that “they are good Godly men who care deeply for these young men and this ministry.”
“I realize that everyone has a job to do in this investigation of the school and I am very pro law enforcement but I feel this may be bordering persecution,” the woman wrote in the email.
Crawford responded, telling her she was familiar with Agape and had been to the school a couple of times.
“I share your concern,” Crawford said. “As you know, this matter has been turned over to the Attorney General. At this point, it is out of my hands. I certainly hope the truth comes out in this investigation.”
Stephens, a retired pharmacist, has known the Householders for more than a decade. In September, the Bolivar lawmaker told The Star that he became familiar with the couple when they started coming to his pharmacy to fill prescriptions. Caring for troubled youth, Stephens said, can be a “very difficult and challenging proposition.”
The teens know the system, he said, and know how to work it.
“These kids that end up in these homes, they are practiced and expert master manipulators; they just are,” he said in the September interview, previously reported in The Star. “You may not want to hear that.”
Based on his experience with the Householders, Stephens said, he saw them as a couple who have “conducted themselves in a very upright way.”
“I know their character and I know their heart,” he said. “I just have a hard time embracing the idea that they are serial abusers.”
According to the emails recently obtained by Quade’s office, Stephanie Householder kept Stephens apprised of Circle of Hope investigations and other issues that came up.
She told the lawmaker on July 23, 2018, that the Department of Social Services had completed its investigation into abuse allegations and “as you will see, it shows the girls make up lies to get their own way.” Householder said the findings show “a clear contradiction of stories from two different girls…”
Stephens responded: “That looks like very good news if not absolute exhortation.” He said he hoped the Cedar County Sheriff’s office would “soon follow suit.”
“I would like to believe this episode will create a clearer understanding on the part of officials in dealing with these situations but I am fast losing faith in them,” he wrote. “God Bless you for the wonderful work you have devoted your lives to. Please let me know if I can assist you in any way.”
In May, Stephens, unlike Crawford, voted for the legislation giving the state some oversight of unlicensed boarding schools.