Missouri Christian boarding school probed over abuse claims
HUMANSVILLE, Mo. – Authorities are investigating a Christian boarding school from which around 20 girls were removed after former residents turned to social media to describe abuse in a case that has focused attention on a Missouri law that exempts faith-based schools from oversight.
In recent years, the state has substantiated four reports of abuse and neglect involving the Circle of Hope Girls' Ranch, which is located less than 7 miles from the 1,000-person town of Humansville in rural southwestern Missouri.
One report was for neglect, one for physical abuse and neglect and two for sexual abuse allegations, said Rebecca Woelfel, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services. She did not say when the reports were made or whom the allegations were against.
Former residents said punishments included the withholding of food and water and being forced to stand against a wall for hours for even minor infractions.
But because the recently closed reform school is exempt from state licensure, the state "does not have authority" over its operations, Woelfel said. The facility has close ties to the independent fundamental Baptist church, which teach followers to separate themselves from worldly influence. Such churches refuse to join any affiliated Baptist denomination.
No criminal charges have been filed against the owners, Boyd and Stephanie Householder. But an investigation is underway, and Cedar County's prosecuting attorney, Ty Gaither, said he's still waiting on reports from state agencies and law enforcement.
The couple say they have no plans to reopen the school but want their reputation restored. They have appealed all of the substantiated reports, blaming their estranged daughter and what they describe as a group of former residents whose lives didn't turn out the way they wanted after they left the ranch.
"They're angry and they're bitter, and they want to blame somebody," said Stephanie Householder, 55. "They feel like they're victims, and they just want to take their anger out on somebody."
Last month, Cedar County authorities removed all of the girls who were still at the facility – 25 of them according to the prosecutor and 18 according to Stephanie Householder. A search warrant also was served.
The couple's attorney, Jay Kirksey, didn't immediately respond to phone messages from The Associated Press.
In recent months, several former residents have recorded videos for social media describing their alleged abuse. And a secret recording made in March by a friend of the Householders appeared to capture Boyd Householder endorsing the use of violence among the girls.
Boyd Householder said that the video was edited and that he was simply telling one girl that she had the right to defend herself against another.
The couple's daughter, Amanda Householder, said that although she's relieved to hear that her parents are shutting down Circle of Hope, she's not going to stop pushing for a thorough investigation.
"I'm not done," she said. "They can deny it all they want, but they still need to be held accountable."
Democratic state Rep. Keri Ingle, a former social worker from Lee's Summit, has asked the state's Office of the Child Advocate to conduct a complete review of the allegations against Circle of Hope and called for a legislative committee hearing on the matter.
"I want to know what happened, what happened in the system?" Ingle said. "Was it they weren't following their own policies, they weren't following existing laws? Or are there laws and policies that need to be put in place to prevent this from happening again?"