(Missouri Independent) – Despite dozens of students coming forward sharing allegations of abuse they suffered at Christian reform schools across Missouri, the state Department of Social Services said Monday that they have no oversight over such facilities.
That’s because they’re unlicensed — and allowed to be under a Missouri law that exempts facilities operated by religious organizations.
And at youth residential facilities, the agency has no legal authority to notify other families when there has been a credible finding of abuse or neglect.
Over the course of four hours, lawmakers on the House Committee on Children and Families heard testimony on the scope of unlicensed facilities across the state and where the state’s oversight falls short. The committee plans to issue a report on its findings and recommendations in two weeks.
The hearing was called in the wake of The Kansas City Star’s investigations into Christian boarding schools that had substantiated reports of abuse, neglect, and sexual abuse. The Star spoke with dozens of former students who recounted enduring emotional and physical abuse, being used as manual labor, and ignored calls for help.
Students from as far away as California found themselves in facilities in Missouri, where some spent years, and reports of abuse didn’t lead to reforms.
“These children are from out of state. They don’t know anyone. And the message that it sends is: Nobody cares about you. You have spoken up about abuse, there’s been a preponderance of evidence, but you’re still returned to be abused by these people,” said Rep. Sheila Solon, a Republican from St. Joseph and chair of the Children and Families Committee. “And we as lawmakers — whether these children are coming from out of state or whether on our soil — we need to protect them. And somebody needs to care about them.”
The proliferation of unlicensed facilities is not a new problem in the state. And yet, DSS still has no way of knowing how many are operating and it doesn’t verify their religious affiliations, Caitlin Whaley, the department’s director of legislation and communications, said Monday.
“Facilities are not required to provide proof of any of those affiliations, so the department doesn’t really have any authority to ascertain the veracity of those claims,” Whaley said. “We take them at their word.”
While representatives of some unlicensed facilities pushed back on calls for change, it’s a system that advocates said needs strengthening in order to protect children from abuse — regardless of where it occurs.
“The definition of abuse and neglect does not change based on the location,” said Kelly Schultz, the director of the Office of Child Advocate, which investigates complaints against the Children’s Division and reviews allegations of abuse. “If it is considered an abuse in my house as a mother, it should be considered as an abuse in a licensed facility and it should be considered as abuse in an unlicensed facility.”
There are currently 110 licensed facilities in Missouri operated by 61 different treatment agencies, Whaley said. In the fiscal year 2019, there were 71 substantiated allegations against institutions’ staff members, which was an 8.1 percent substantiation rate, and 30 substantiated allegations against school personnel, which was a substantiation rate of 4.3 percent, Whaley said.
A family may only become aware of an active investigation into abuse and neglect if their own child needs to be interviewed as part of another child’s case. Otherwise, to find out about previous reports, state statute stipulates parents must submit a request in writing in addition to a signed and notarized release form from the person providing care.
“How is the family going to be made aware that there are allegations and able to sign that?” asked Rep. Keri Ingle, a Democrat from Lee’s Summit and former Children’s Division investigator who called for the hearing.
Whaley said parents would have to request the reports as part of their “due diligence” when looking to place their child in a residential facility.
David Melton, the general counsel for CNS International Ministries and Heartland Christian Academy, which has faced reports of abuse and use of corporal punishment, said that religious leaders are already required in Missouri to act as mandated reporters and that the system only “works when you have good actors at the state level.”
“The question we always come down to is, ‘Who’s watching the watchers,” Melton said. “That’s the problem that we have. What happens when you have somebody that does not have a charitable view of religion.”
Woody Cozad, a lobbyist, attorney, and former chairman for the Missouri Republican Party who previously lobbied for CNS Corporation from 2003-2019, said that in his experience, the facilities “were the victims of an abuse of state power.”
“So we have a hard time believing the state doesn’t have sufficient authority,” Cozad said. “They can come into an unlicensed facility if they get a complaint that abuse and neglect is going on.”
But Whaley said that the department cannot require access to private homes or unlicensed facilities — like it can with licensed ones.
Schultz, the director of the Office of Child Advocate, recommended that the state implement a third option: registration of all facilities — regardless of whether they are licensed or unlicensed. In Mississippi, facilities must meet minimum requirements to receive registration, which can be revoked if violations aren’t corrected.
“We’ve got to figure out a way that these places are known, that they exist — and registration could do that,” said Jessica Seitz, the director of public policy for Missouri KidsFirst, which works to protect children from abuse and neglect.
From requiring background checks for staff to improved communication between entities investigating instances of abuse, advocates said more can be done.
“There’s nothing we can do today that will completely erase everything,” said Mary Chant, the executive director of the Missouri Coalition of Children’s Agencies, which has both secular and faith-based orgs as members. “But I think there are things that we can put in place that ideally will prevent children from being harmed — but at minimum enable us to be able to respond more quickly and stop the harm from continuing.”