Missouri regulates boarding schools after abuse allegations
Maggie Drew’s dad sent her to Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch in Missouri in 2007, hoping strict Christian teachings would stop his 14-year-old daughter’s teenage rebellion.
Instead, Drew said, she found herself in a nightmare, sexually abused by one of the boarding school’s founders and left with permanent spinal injuries after a fall from a hay barn for which she received no medical attention.
Just 25 miles away at another Christian boarding school, Brett Harper says he endured abuse that included staff members stomping on his back. He said his injuries required two spinal surgeries and left him disabled.
They are among dozens of people who say they were abused at either Circle of Hope or Agape Boarding School — allegations that helped prompt a new Missouri law aimed at reining in religious boarding schools that for decades went without any oversight by the state.
“I still have nightmares about these people and the things they did to us,” Drew said.
The founders of Circle of Hope face around 100 charges, some alleging sexual abuse. Agape’s doctor is charged with child sex crimes and five employees are accused of assault, though Missouri’s attorney general thinks many more workers should have been charged.
The schools are unrelated and are not affiliated with any particular Christian denomination. But both opened in southwest Missouri under a 1982 state law that gave religious boarding schools free rein and the state no way to monitor how kids were educated. Even the health department had no oversight, including for schools that claimed to address mental health, behavioral and addiction issues.
The new law approved last year followed extensive reporting from The Kansas City Star that found that several faith-based boarding schools, including Agape, relocated to Missouri after being investigated or shut down for abuse or neglect elsewhere.
Legislators heard testimony from former students such as Chanel Mare, who told of girls at Circle of Hope being forced to eat their own vomit; and James Matthew Lawson, who said he was raped at Agape and called “seizure boy” because of his epilepsy.
The Associated Press generally does not name victims of sexual abuse, but Larson and Drew both came forward publicly to discuss the allegations.
Supporters of religious boarding schools say they provide structure to troubled young people. Megan Stokes, executive director of National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, said the wrongdoing alleged at Agape and Circle of Hope is exceedingly uncommon.
Yet unlike Missouri and many other states, her trade association requires state licensing for all of its 150 member schools, including the religious ones. Agape is not a member, nor was Circle of Hope.
Boyd and Stephanie Householder opened Circle of Hope in 2006 in the remote town of Humansville. “We use the BIBLE to teach (girls) that they are to obey their Parents and the authority over them,” the school’s website, which has been taken down, stated.
The school closed amid a 2020 investigation; 25 girls were removed. In March 2021, Boyd Householder, 72, was charged with 79 crimes and Stephanie, 56, was charged with 22.
Sixteen former residents alleged they were restrained with handcuffs, whipped with belts, and punched. Nearly two dozen counts against Boyd Householder accuse him of sexual contact with girls.
Messages left with the Householders’ attorney were not returned. In an August interview with the Star, the couple said the accusers made up their stories.
Drew, now 29, said her life was upended when her brother died in a car wreck in 2007. Her grieving father joined a church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Drew said that when she refused to wear a skirt and her grades dropped, church leaders persuaded her dad to send her to Circle of Hope.
“It was absolute torture,” said Drew, who also accused the Householders of stealing a $25,000 inheritance from her.
James Clemensen, a retired California trooper, and his wife, Kathy, started Agape in Stockton, Missouri, in 1990. He told a reporter in 2002 that he picked Missouri because of its lack of regulation. He died in October.
Agape serves 120-150 boys ages 12-17. Its website says it’s a nonprofit school “designed to show God’s love to teen boys struggling with behavior issues that can threaten their future.”
The school remains open. Five staffers were charged in September with abusing students. In December, Dr. David Smock was charged with sexual abuse. He pleaded not guilty in March.
Phone messages left with Agape’s director and Smock’s attorney were not returned.
Harper was 14 when he was sent there from his rural Oregon home in 1999. Now 36, he recalled long hours moving large rocks from one pile to another, toting lumber by hand and clearing land. Harper said his injuries have left him unable to keep a job.
“What I went through at Agape primed me for abusive relationships with people, it primed for being an ignorant young man not knowing the way the world worked, it destroyed my family relationship,” Harper said.
Missouri’s new law sets minimum health and safety requirements for boarding schools, which still don’t have to be licensed. The law mandates background checks for employees; requires adequate food, clothing and medical care for students; and says parents must be allowed access to their children at any time without prior notice.
After a state investigation last year, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt recommended charges against 22 Agape employees. But in Missouri, only the local prosecutor can file charges, and Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither does not plan to file more.
“The attorney general has his agenda,” Gaither said. “I’m an experienced prosecutor and I filed what I believe are the appropriate charges.”
James Clidence, who taught math at Agape from 2012 to 2015, said he left after witnessing abuses so concerning that his wife contacted federal, state and local authorities. None would investigate, he said.
“I’m for religious liberty. I’m a pastor. But at this point we’re talking about children’s well-being,” Clidence, who now leads a Baptist church in Maryland, said.
Harper is among those who question whether religious boarding schools will get real scrutiny in Missouri.
“How many things have to happen before they act?” he asked.