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Missouri Lawmakers Propose Regulating Unlicensed Religious Schools

Members of the Missouri House are bringing new regulations to the legislative table to control religious boarding schools.

“We have a number of our members that are very interested in filing legislation, leadership in the House has been very supportive of us taking action, and I believe it might be one of the first bills passed next year,” Rep. Sheila Solon, R-St. Joseph, said.

The House Committee on Children and Families held a four-hour hearing where they called numerous witnesses to gather information on the current state of the regulations of residential schools in Missouri, many of them unregulated due to the lack of a law covering religious boarding schools in the state.

“It was very clear and evident that there really is no government oversight of these facilities,” said Solon. In a new committee report, members concluded “there are numerous facilities in the state that have abused vulnerable children in their care, with no state oversight, for many years.”

The committee also stressed the need to balance that with “a parent’s right to place a child with an organization that shares their same desire in program requirements, curriculum, personnel, ministry, teaching, instruction or enrollment.”

According to information shared at the hearing by Caitlin Whaley, director of legislation and Communications at the Department of Social Services, in Missouri, there is evidence of only 110 licensed residential care facilities, a term that includes facilities providing 24-hour care in a group setting to children unattended by parents or guardians.

Last Monday’s hearing was called by Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, following an extensive report from the Kansas City Star documenting the testimonies of abuse of a dozen former students from Circle of Hope Girl’s Ranch, a Cedar County facility that was closed in August. In September, two former ranch residents filed lawsuits in Cedar County against the owners, Boyd and Stephanie Householder.

Missouri does not have a clear definition of what unregulated schools are and how many such institutions exist in the state, Solon acknowledged.

“The only time that we even learned that their existence is when there, you know, is a hotline call made or child abuse accusations made.”

The committee’s report lists several items that could be changed in state law. These include:

  • Facilities in Missouri that care for children away from their parents or guardians on a residential basis should be required to abide by minimal health and safety requirements in order to operate.
  • One of those requirements shall be a one-time registration requirement with the Department of Social Services for any facility that is not otherwise licensed by the state.
  • Registration shall include proof that the facility has and will continue to conduct Missouri State Highway patrol fingerprint background checks of all owners, operators, employees and volunteers.

Failure to conduct background checks should result in misdemeanor charges and administrative penalties for facility operators.

  • The Department of Social Services should maintain a report or public website where the public can see licensed and registered facilities and reports of substantiated cases of child abuse or other criminal complaints.
  • Accumulation of three substantiated child abuse and neglect reports in the same facility shall result in revocation of registration and removal of children.
  • Facilities shall be required to abide by the same local fire and health requirements as any other child care facility.