© 2024 University of Missouri - KBIA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Heartland, Missouri

For the past year, KBIA has been working on a special long-form story about a place in Northeast Missouri called Heartland. It’s a story with threads of religion, law, business, and morality that all end in a knot, in the middle of a cornfield.


To download the full audio for offline listening, please click here.

"I don't know if you felt anything when you drove in, but you just feel the peace as soon as you drive in."

Credit Abigail Keel / KBIA


In the Heartland

You’re driving down a country road, whipping over small hills passing trucks and mailboxes for houses far off the road. Corn and soybeans are a few feet away from the shoulder. In the distance, you can see a water tower. It’s white, and the closer it becomes, the more clearly the white cross on top stands out. And then there’s another road. This one is perfectly straight and smoothly paved. It leads towards the water tower through what seems like days of tall, bronze corn. There’s a sign that says: Welcome to Heartland.

Heartland is an intentional Christian community, designed after Psalm 107, where God leads the broken to a city of holiness. Charles Sharpe founded Heartland Community Church on the land, which belonged to his family, in 1995. Since then, it has grown into a neighborhood and series of businesses for those who live there.

Heartland isn’t technically its own town, though many of its residents would call it that. It’s located about 85 miles northeast of Columbia, between Kirksville and Hannibal. The closest municipalities are Bethel, Mo. (population 122) and Newark, Mo (population 94). Heartland is a lot bigger. 

Credit Abigail Keel / KBIA

“I think there’s about 500 people on the payroll,” said Brenda Potts, official tour guide for Heartland ministries. “It’s spread out over three counties,” she told KBIA reporters in June 2013, when KBIA visited the Heartland complex.

So what do 500 people have to do in the middle of a cornfield? Well, a lot actually. Sharpe runs a construction company at Heartland, which builds all the houses for residents to live in. They are suburban homes, with lawns maintained by Heartland staff, a stone’s throw from the nearby businesses also owned by Sharpe.           

There’s a laundromat called Cleansing Waters, a telecommunication company, a general store and gas station, two restaurants, a small private bible college, Salt and Light candle company, Scribbles and Scribes design company, a thrift store, an exotic animal zoo, a runway for Sharpe’s two jets, an auto body shop, and a medical center. All of this is open to the public, and available for tours all year round.

Perhaps the biggest employer on the Heartland campus is Sharpe Land & Cattle, which runs the Heartland Creamery. The cattle operation is one of the largest operations in Missouri and the creamery makes cheese sold across the United States. Hyvee and Schnucks carry the Heartland brand of eggs, milk, and cheese, fixed with the heartland water tower logo. Their silver trucks say “Jesus is the Answer” and travel highways like 63, I-70 and I-44. 

Credit KBIA

But the point of Heartland isn't the businesses. Potts says Heartland was started for “helping people to give a fresh start in life and teach skills.”

“Mainly,” she said, “it's to get into [a] relationship with Jesus Christ, who is the center hub of Heartland. That's our goal.”

And Heartland’s proponents say it works. Potts said her family was struggling to make ends meet. She heard about Heartland and came to visit with her husband and children. She said they felt at home at Heartland.

“I don't know if you felt anything when you drove in,” she said, ”but you just feel the peace as soon as you drive in.” Now she lives at Heartland with her family. She gives tours and her husband works on the cattle farm. She said he’s even taken advantage of some of Heartland’s recovery programs to get a better foundation with Jesus.

Heartland Community Church follows a pretty straightforward branch of Evangelical Christianity. The church’s website calls is a “New Testament Church,” meaning they emphasize the teachings of Jesus Christ. The church broadcasts sermons on local television stations, and sends young people around the world on mission trips every year.

Some people hear about Heartland through their churches. Many are referred by friends who already live there or know Sharpe through his companies. Some people find Heartland by going on a tour. Potts said she gives tours to hundreds of people a year, many of them church groups, and the annual open house event attracts thousands over the Fourth of July.

Once you find your way to Heartland, there's little reason to leave—living expenses are automatically docked from pay, so employees don’t pay out of pocket for housing. Many of them are young, and start their adult lives with the support of Heartland.

Some important people in the region know about Heartland, too. Peter Kinder, Missouri's Lieutenant Governor tweeted in 2012 about his visit to Heartland. John Ashcroft, the former Governor of Missouri and former US Attorney General spoke at the Heartland Christian College fundraiser in 2013. Ashcroft is also a longtime friend of Charles Sharpe and even wrote the forward to Sharpe’s autobiography, Turning Points.

So even though it’s nestled in a very rural area in northeast Missouri, Heartland isn't a secret. In fact, people find Heartland from all over the United States, and then some of them send their children there.

• • •

"I had friends that just couldn't handle it and they would run through the cornfields to try to get out...they wanted to get out so bad"

Credit KBIA

Spare the Rod

Heartland Christian Academy is a private religious school that opened in 1996. It has a K through 12 Christian curriculum and currently has more than 200 students. The school backs up to the suburban style homes on the complex and looks out over a baseball field.

Some students at HCA live at Heartland with their families, some come daily from nearby small towns, and others are boarders, dropped off by their parents for the "youth program" a rehabilitation track for "wayward teens." These children can come from as far away as the East Coast, and some even hail from other countries, adopted by people in the U.S. and eventually sent to Heartland. 

The youth program is not a new concept, especially in Missouri which is home to somewhere between 6 to 12 Christian youth programs and camps. Heartland’s website says this about the academy: "If you desire a school for your children where God is honored, the Bible is revered as the standard for life, and excellence is pursued, consider Heartland Christian Academy."

And plenty of people agree. As a teen, Sarah Barton said she was pretty out of control. She ran away, skipped school, slept in parks. But Heartland, she said, saved her.

Credit Abigail Keel / KBIA
Heartland Christian Academy

“Of course Jesus is the forefront of everything,” Barton said about her education at HCA.

“Without him and salvation, I don't even know what Heartland had to offer besides Jesus. He is the answer to all things. He saved me, he restored my family. He gave me  opportunity.”

Barton is not alone. Plenty of other former students at Heartland said they felt the stability and structure put them on the right path. But while the strictness works for some, others say it crosses a line.

Heartland Christian Academy openly uses corporal punishment. In Missouri, it's legal for schools to use physical punishment as long as parents know the school's policy. And Heartland doesn't hide its philosophy – it’s easily found in the online application. Besides, it's in Proverbs: "Whoever spares the rod hates their children"

"Of course Jesus is the forefront of everything"

Many people at Heartland are proud former students who still live and work on the campus. But some former students no longer live at Heartland, and were not as comfortable with the school’s policies. 

Leah Devost-Scribner lives in Alaska now with her husband and children. She was a student at Heartland between 2003 and 2005 when she was in her teens. Her parents sent her there from their home in New Hampshire, she said, to gain a closer relationship with Jesus. Devost-Scribner said Heartland’s policies felt like abuse to her.

“I know most people wouldn't say corporal punishment is abuse, she said, “but we would get swats from men in their 30's… and they used, the big paddles that had holes in them so when they would swat you it would leave welts.”

“They would do it for nothing at all,” Devost-Scribner said. “Like girls I know wouldn't maybe, didn't pass a test that they took and they would give them swats for it.”

Credit Leah Devost-Scribner
Leah Devost-Scribner, today

Maiah Swanson was adopted from Bulgaria and lived in Wisconsin. She said her parents had trouble with the adjustment and sent her to Heartland with her brothers in 2001 when she was 9 years old. She lived there for 7 years, and like Devost-Scribner, she said the punishments went too far.

“Let's say you had a chore to wash the table and you didn't do it correctly,” Swanson said.  “You would get some form of consequence.. And it could be consisting of writing scripture, they believe in giving swats... it could be anything.”

Heartland staff said it’s their policy to never give more than 10 swats per student per day. But Swanson and Devost-Scribner said they knew students at Heartland who were given the maximum ten swats everyday for weeks. Both recalled experiences with discipline at HCA that led to medical treatment.

"I don't know exactly what I did wrong," Swanson said. "But I received 15 I think within 10 minutes. They went too far."

Swanson said she saw the doctor at Heartland and was picked up by her mother. She also received treatment for her injuries once back at home in Wisconsin.

Boy and girl students are kept completely separate at HCA, only mingling in church, where they sit on opposite sides of the sanctuary. Devost-Scribner said she got in trouble for trying to pass a note to the boys, and was asked to bend over at the waist with her hands holding the edge of a chair and be swatted as punishment.

“The guy hit me so hard that I fell forward and moved my shoulder weird,” she said. “It dislocated, popped right out of place, and for the next few days…my whole arm, there was just so much pain, and it was just swollen.”  Devost-Scribner said she visited a doctor in her hometown over a break. She said the doctor advised that she not be given swats until her arm healed, but Heartland’s staff did not heed the warning. When her parents discovered this, she said they took her out of Heartland.  

“The guy hit me so hard that I fell forward and moved my shoulder weird... It dislocated, popped right out of place."

And it is not just physical. Heartland openly uses a variety of techniques to keep children in line. Swanson, Devost-Scribner and others described prison-style, orange jumpsuits that students must wear when they’ve broken a rule. Staff said it helps them spot children attempting to run away after getting in trouble.  Swanson said there was a dress called the “ugly dress” that female students would wear when in trouble as humiliation. She also said they had signs that students had to wear which designated that they could not speak unless directed to by staff.

“And I'm talking about not you just can't talk for an hour,” Swanson said. “Sometimes there were, I've seen girls that couldn't talk for months.”

It's also Heartland policy to take students off of any medications when they arrive. Staff said the policy is strict, and some parent's won't send their children to Heartland because of it.

“What they say is ‘Well God will heal you, you don't need medication,’” Swanson said.

The Missouri Department of Social Services lists isolation and spanking, as behaviors that could cross the boundary into abuse or neglect. It also includes emotional abuse in its definition of abuse. Swanson and Devost-Scribner say that while they were there, students were also isolated, denied meals, and verbally abused. Heartland monitors student's phone calls and mail. They can't have cell phones.

Devost-Scribner said the years she spent at Heartland made a lasting impact. She said she remembered being desperate, and considered running away. While she never tried, she said her friends did.

“I had friends that just couldn't handle it.,” she said. “And they would run through the cornfields to try to get out and .. I would just remember them coming back and …from running through the corn, they would just be like completely like scraped up and just horrible. That they wanted to get out so bad that they would go through that much trouble of running through that.”

• • •


"But all of those problems would be solved if we just knew God."

Credit Ryan Famuliner / KBIA
Charles Sharpe
The Man Behind It All

Charles N. Sharpe, or Pastor Charlie as manly affectionately call him, is nothing if not charismatic. His golden skin makes his white teeth glow whiter, and his hair combed neatly shines with the same hue. His cadence is slow, with a country drawl, but he speaks with so much punch it’s impossible not to fall silent when he begins a story. And boy does he tell stories. Every question is answered with an anecdote in perfect pastor fashion. He brings his animates his own life story with characters good and bad.

Charles Sharpe founded Ozark National Life Insurance company in Kansas City, Missouri in 1964. He's made millions of dollars since then and remains President of the company at 87 years old. He also owns CNS Corporation and Sharpe Holdings, both of which own companies on the Heartland campus.

He may have made his  millions in insurance, but his heart undoubtedly lies with Heartland, which is why he is so willing to respond to criticism. Heartland has gathered plenty over the years. 

Credit Ryan Famuliner / KBIA

Sharpe remains adamant, “We have no abuse here. We have zero tolerance.”

He defends Heartland’s approach to discipline and calls it old-fashioned.

“Bottoms,” he said, “A lot of people think they are just to be sat on. They're for spanking.” Sharpe said he has even taken spankings in front of children to punish them.

“Now that usually is as hard on them,” he said, “or harder on them, than when you give them swats.”

But he also said that Heartland doesn’t hit students as a first line of punishment.

“It's not the way,” he said. “It's a way. Sometimes kids you can't get to them any other way so you got to try everything. We try everything. Spanking is the last resort but when it comes down to that, if you can't get kids to do what you tell them…what would you do?”

Sharpe believes that children with serious behavior issues respond to pain. He said being strict is an important part of how Heartland runs.

“You have to run the place like this with an absolute tough hand,” he said, “or you won’t make it.

He tells a story that everyone at Heartland knows about driving along a country road and hearing the voice of God. There’s a mural of it in the school, with a yellow glow radiating from Sharpe’s face as he pictures what Heartland looks like today.

“The Lord said to me,” he said, “Now you can hear me. It's me, I'm talking to you. I want you to build a place for kids.”

Sharpe’s mission at Heartland is to provide the kind of instruction that he believes will put youth on the right path, and to combat the problems he sees with how society deals with children today.

“Why do you think today our juvenile places are packed?,” he said. “Kids are wonderful. They just don't have anybody to raise them. They don't have anybody to teach them.”

“But all of those problems would be solved if we just knew God,” said Sharpe.

• • •

“Nobody will hire a person because he’s been in prison. Those are the very people we want.”

Erich Wilson, in the hospital, before coming to Heartland

The Road to Recovery

Erich Wilson is husband and father who works in Heartland’s dairy. He wears a shirt with his name stitched on the chest, and has a warm, open candor. He’s been there for a few years and likes the support the Heartland community gives him.

Before Heartland, Wilson struggled with drugs and alcohol. He couldn’t be the father and husband he said he wanted to be. He tried a number of different rehabilitation programs to deal with the meth, pain pills, and alcohol that he said had become his coping mechanisms. After relapsing, he said he felt hopeless.

“It's embarrassing and makes you feel weak as a person,” he said. “I did try to kill myself after the second rehab. I slit my throat, 200 stitches in my throat. It was pretty much the lowest point because it was hopeless when I thought that I'm not going to be able to beat this.”

Then he found Heartland’s Recovery Program. It is a private, religious program that helps rehabilitate over 100 men at a time who have issues ranging from alcohol and drug addiction to serious crimes and stints in prison. There is a women’s branch of the program, as well that is located on a different part of the Heartland complex.

Most of the men in the recovery program work for Heartland's huge cattle and dairy operation as part of their treatment. The program is 18 months long, longer than many rehab options, and the men live and work about 10 miles away from the main campus, technically in a different county.

For Wilson, the intensity of the program helped keep him on track.

“Number one is God.,” he said. “It's a faith-based program. Number two, it makes you live a year and a half sober. It's the time.”

Credit Ryan Famuliner / KBIA
Erich Wilson, three years after arriving at Heartland

Now he is one of Heartland’s successful testimonies. He stuck around Heartland after the program for the job security and was later joined by his family. His story isn't uncommon around Heartland.

Sharpe said that Heartland brings out the potential in people like Wilson, who society has deemed broken.

“Nobody will hire a person because he has been in prison,” Sharpe said. “Those are the very people we want. Once we rebuild them, they really make great citizens, great people. All of our people have been in prison, or almost all of them.”

Some of the men who graduate from Recovery move back to the main Heartland complex, and find jobs there or remain in the Dairy. But some move into supervisory roles in the program, where they become responsible for leading others through recovery. Many of the men in the program have committed serious crimes—sometimes as serious as sex offenses—and then stick around Heartland and the vulnerable population it serves. But Sharpe and those who run the recovery program say that growing to the point of being able to help others shows real change of character. Wilson agreed and said he appreciated the chance to share his story with others battling the same demons.

“They are the ones who run this place.,” Sharpe said about the Recovery graduates. “They are in charge and we trust them.  We are let down occasionally. But how many times have been let down by people who haven't been in prison?”

But not everyone agrees. Matt Franck, deputy metro editor for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, wrote a series of articles about Missouri teen reform programs, including Heartland, in the early 2000’s. He said that having the men from the recovery program continue to live at Heartland and in some cases interact with students is likely to lead to problem.

“It has been my experience that when there is a problem with any kind of institution,” he said, “any type of group home with youth, that it's typically your worst employee that causes you problems.”

Sharpe said Heartland does undeniable good in changing people's lives. That’s why he said he’s invested $140 million dollars over the years in building and maintaining Heartland.

“We didn't start this place to spend our fortune to do something wrong,” he said.

Sharpe said he spends about $5 million every year to keep it operating and called it an “economic black hole.”

But Sharpe sees Heartland as filling an important void. Frankly, he said, what the state is doing to help troubled youth and people who need rehabilitation is not working. And those who say he's running some sort of scam with his program baffle Sharpe.

“I don't care what the people say,” he said. “It doesn't mean a thing to me.” Sharpe is not pleased with the coverage and attention that Heartland has received over the years. Publications from People Magazine to online bloggers have given Heartland less than glowing reviews.

“Here's the part that is the biggest shock to me of all,” he said. “People already determined that we had some kind of ulterior motive.”

And he is not being paranoid. There was a period of time when he and Heartland were getting a lot of attention from the state.

• • •


"They were definitely out to get us."

Credit Ryan Famuliner / KBIA
Heartland vs. The State of Missouri

In the late 1990s, a few things about Heartland started stacking up in state offices. There were a number of environmental lawsuits handled by then-attorney general Jay Nixon’s office, which in one case cost Sharpe's company $110 thousand. Sharpe Land & Cattle, on Heartland grounds, was fined for improperly disposing wastewater.

And then there was a hotline call about Heartland that launched an investigation into child abuse claims.

“They were definitely out to get us,” said Sharpe. “There was no question the state wanted to take the place over. We run this place like a place should be run and they just hate it because they don't' have any success and we have a lot of success.”

In 2001 criminal charges were filed against five adults at Heartland for what court documents describe as the "manure pit incident." Students were made to shovel, and by some accounts, stand in cow manure as punishment. A jury in Northeast Missouri acquitted three of the staff members, saying the punishment seemed more like farm work and less like abuse. Charges were dropped against the other two staff. But as rumors of abuse grew, so did concern from the state.

Maiah Swanson was one of the students removed from Heartland by the state in the raid, and later returned.

“October 30th is when the juvenile officers, I don't know how many, but there were way too many that came unexpectedly and, went in and took 115 students out,” said Swanson. “For me, I mean I was 9 years old, it was very chaotic.”

Children screaming. That is what raises hairs in the footage staff at Heartland shot the day of the raid. The video shows state officers escorting children out of the school and loading them onto school buses. Students are yelling and resisting, and staff members seem helpless.

A child is loaded onto a school bus during the 2001 raid.

This is child abuse!” one of them screamed at an officer placing a child on a bus. “Take your hands off of her!”

All this happened on October 30th, 2001.  The state removed 115 students from Heartland Christian Academy after the investigation into the child abuse claims. All but 3 of the students ended up back at Heartland after their parents returned them. Children become custody of the state in a raid, but legally, the Heartland students were still in their parent’s custody.

Sharpe began a legal battle that lasted more than 3 years which he says cost him $6 million to win. 

Basically, parents and Sharpe filed numerous lawsuits making the case that the state acted rashly and harmfully by removing students from Heartland.

They sued the State of Missouri, departments involved in the raid, like Social Services, and even some individuals working on behalf of the Youth Services Department. These individuals were Juvenile Officers, special agents who work with young people involved in legal issues with the state. Their involvement is part of what makes the Heartland case special.

"This is the kind of work you sort of hope people are passionate about."

Clark Peters is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Social Work. He said the role of Juvenile Officers in Missouri is distinctive and complicated.

“I think one of the important takeaways involved, touches on the juvenile officer,” he said. “And how critical that role is, how complicated, how fraught it is, and how challenging it must be to fulfill that role.”

Peters said Missouri is one of few states who have these positions, agents somewhere between the legislative and executive branches. They are one of few constants in juvenile court, where many other lawyers and judges are rookies or on a rotation.

In the Heartland case, it was the Juvenile Officers, specifically one man named Mike Waddle, who were in charge of making the call. Waddle and a team of other Juvenile Officers conducted interviews with students at Heartland before the raid, but they said as the investigation got serious, they thought conversations with Heartland were strained. They felt there was evidence of child abuse worthy of action, and thought a raid was their best option. Heartland did not.

Peters said it is hard to navigate “how to constrain the authority of the JO while still allowing the discretion that they need to do their job well.”

“This is not easy work,” he said. “The juvenile officer has to make  very hard decisions and often the best decision is simply the least bad among bad choices.”

Heartland sued Mike Waddle in civil court over the raid. He represented himself. There were appeals, but eventually Heartland won $800,000 in legal fees and Judge E. Richard Webber signed an injunction barring the state from removing any child from Heartland without having solid proof the child is being abused or is in imminent danger of abuse.

This ruling essentially set a very high bar for the state to meet if it wants to get involved at Heartland.

“This is the kind of work that you sort of hope people are passionate about.,” said Peters. “I don't know how you can be dispassionate about caring for children.”

Passionate or not, legally, Waddle and his team made the wrong call. He didn't have the evidence to prompt the actions the state took. 

In a very important way, it was harmful for those children to be removed,” said Peters. “It was harmful to do it the way they did, suddenly without preparation.”

Mike Waddle did not want to be interviewed on tape for this story because he said thinking about the case takes too much out of him. He no longer works for the Youth Services Department, and not only that—he says he lost his faith in a system he defended, Missouri's juvenile justice system.  Waddle says the personal toll of discussing it brings up things it's taken him 10 years to try and forget. 

• • •

"You're talking about the state not only intruding on someone's family but also on someone's right to practice their religion."

Credit Abigail Keel / KBIA
Separation of Church and State?

In Charles Sharpe’s legendary story, God spoke to him and asked him to build Heartland. He said he was driving out on what is now the Heartland complex when he heard divine instructions. He grew up on the same land, it belonged to his parents. There’s a memorial to them listed as one of Heartland’s attractions on its website.

But this land, sitting on three county lines and filled in with corn isn’t just special because of its history to Sharpe, it’s special because of where it lies. Missouri.

Many of our sources said Missouri is likely one of the only places Heartland could operate because of its specific set of laws and its political climate.

Missouri requires most childcare facilities, residential care facilities, and schools to be - at minimum - inspected for health and safety. This means there are minimum requirements facilities must meet, and they can exceed them if they choose to become licensed or accredited by the state. Any facility that receives public funding must meet those requirements. None of these regulations applies to Heartland.

“There is an exemption granted for religion--religiously oriented programs,” said Cande Iveson, a social work professor at the University of Missouri. “And the thinking there is that, the state should not interfere with something that's religious based.”

Religiously oriented facilities, like Heartland, can claim a religious exemption from state inspection and licensing. And facilities do not have to register with the state in order to make their claims.

Many organizations that use this exemption are small day care operations run by churches. Religious organizations can choose to pursue licensing and even accreditation, and many do. Childcare facilities generally want parents to know they have met state safety standards.

Matt Franck of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said for facilities using the exemption, “if you believe that you have this faith exemption as a facility, that's good enough. You don't have to apply to verify that that’s the case.”

This legal exemption is one part of a series of laws that make Missouri special. Corporal punishment in schools is only legal in 19 states, including Missouri. While multiple states, like Florida and California, have some religious exemptions to licensure, Missouri’s regulations are some of the most lax in the nation.  

“Missouri has long attracted teen reform ministries of this sort because they're totally unregulated due to the faith exemption,” said Franck.

Teen reform camps and ministries have even been known to move to Missouri when other states tighten restrictions. Franck said when he was reporting on teen reform in the early 2000s, he knew of six to a dozen facilities open in Missouri—ranging from cabins in the woods to professional-style operations like Heartland.

He also said the lack of regulations can escalate a problem a facility might deal with internally. Bad employees, for instance, go unchecked because there is no regulatory body, let alone codified standards.

“When you add to that the fact that these students are unable often to communicate with their parents without having their mail censored and have no open communication with the outside world,” said Franck. “You create a situation in which a bad employee can take advantage of that situation.”

But Cande Iveson said it's important to keep in mind just how complicated it is to write and change laws about child welfare and state involvement at private facilities. Those are tangled up in something very important, especially in Missouri: Religious Freedom.

“It's a fundamental values conflict for us,” said Iveson.

Iveson said when you mix religion and children, the situation gets very sticky very fast. And Missouri’s legislature does not often tackle sticky situations.

“You're talking about the state not only intruding on someone's family but also on someone's right to practice their religion,” she said. “And it just is not going fly in the Missouri legislature.”

When it comes down to it, this debate is basically about individual rights; one side promoting the rights of the parents, giving them more control to make choices for their families,  the other side promoting the rights of the child, which in this case means making it easier for the state to get involved in family affairs.

"Missouri has long attracted teen reform ministries of this sort because they're totally unregulated due to the faith exemption."

Franck said even the Heartland case boils down to this conflict. The parents who sued the state felt like their rights to make choices for their children were infringed by the raid.

They were upset because they felt like they were fully aware of what Charlie Sharpe was doing,” said Franck. “They were informed about the activities their children were engaged in and had given consent for them to take place. And for the state to come in and remove them, bus them off and take them somewhere else, they felt was a violation.”

The most recent time Missouri made significant changes to laws dealing with child welfare and regulations was 2004. Catherine Hanaway, who was speaker of the state house at the time, sponsored House Bill 1453, which has its own connection to Heartland.

It was nicknamed the Dominic James bill after a young boy who died at the hands of his foster father and prompted the overhaul. The bill pushed for national accreditation for the state and privatization of services, created a special executive office to deal with child welfare issues, and changed standards for foster parents.

It also changed the standard of proof for child abuse from probable cause to preponderance of evidence, which makes it more difficult to prove abuse or neglect. It didn't change licensing laws.

Governor Bob Holden vetoed the bill, but the Missouri legislature overrode it and it became law. Hanaway’s political ascent continued from there. John Ashcroft later appointed her to the US Attorney General’s office, and she is running for governor in 2016.

Another one of many political forces behind the bill was someone familiar. 

• • •


"There's so few that can make the difference, John Ashcroft was one."

Credit Heartland Christian College
Chancellor Charles Sharpe, Laurie Sharpe, and Former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Heartland Christian College, April 23, 2013
Follow the Money

While Charles Sharpe is very critical of the state, and refuses to take any money from the state for Heartland’s benefit, he’s very interested in state politics

“If I find a guy that I think is conservative,” he said. “A person who doesn't want to give away the country, if he takes a stance against abortion, and he stands for marriage between a man and a woman, I'll vote for you.”

Sharpe has a well documented history building relationships with Missouri politicians. He’s proud of supporting John Ashcroft.

“There's so few that can make the difference,” Sharpe said. “John Ashcroft was one. He was the right guy.”

“Charlie Shape has always been a key political donor,” Franck said. “I'd consider him one of the more influential people in Jefferson City circles.”

According to data from the Missouri Ethics Commission, Sharpe, his wife Laurie, their business associates and their corporations have donated just less than $1 million to political candidates and organizations since 2002.

CNS Corporation has registered lobbyists – one of whom is John C. (Woody) Cozad, formerly the Missouri state chairman for the GOP.

When the Dominic James case prompted Hanaway's bill, Sharpe and his lobbyists had a seat at the table for a piece of legislation that dealt so intently with childcare facilities and regulation.

A 2003 editorial by the St. Louis Post Dispatch said the Dominic James bill should have actually been called the Heartland Protection Act. At one point, a provision was inserted in the bill that would have made it impossible for the state to consider something abuse at unlicensed facilities like Heartland as long as it was part of the institution’s policy. This meant that the only rules applying to private facilities would have been the rules they made up for themselves. The provision was eventually taken out.

Franck said the raid and the expensive legal aftermath have certainly had an influence over Missouri’s lawmakers, making them less likely to want to get involved at private facilities.

"I'd consider him one of the more influential people in Jefferson City circles."

  He also said the way he sees it, there could be some sort of compromise reached on minimal regulations, just to have a record of these facilities existing, and protecting their clients from bad-intentioned employees.

“I would like to see a conversation take place in the legislature that hasn't yet happened,” he said, “which is really sitting down and comparing how Missouri compares to other states and looking at a track record of these facilities.”

But Franck acknowledged, protecting religious freedom is sort of in Missouri’s political bones, so it's unlikely there will be a push to change the laws that affect Heartland anytime soon.  

• • •


“It’s right close to hell.”

Credit Abigail Keel / KBIA
The Heart of Heartland

Matt Franck said while he was reporting about Heartland and other facilities like it, he saw the need that helps them exist. He said he met some desperate parents who often times were not even religious, but just at the end of their rope.

“It's easy to judge those parents or to think that ‘I'd never do that to my child,’” he said. “But I'd invite anybody to talk to those parents and when you do you will sympathize, I guarantee it, with the struggles that they go through.”

Brenda Potts, the tour guide at Heartland said she did not know what her family would have done with Sharpe and Heartland.

“I don’t know what a lot of people would have done,” she said.

But Leah Devost-Scribner said she still thinks about Heartland and the students there today.

“He doesn't know the damage that he's done,” she said about Sharpe. “I just hope he knows that he's done more damage than good.”

Sharpe, though, said it’s all about embracing a desire to change.

“I'm sure there are kids that come here that hadn't had great experience because they didn't want to change,” he said. “It is a terrible place for people that don't' want to change. It’s right close to hell. Because we want to show them what hell is gonna be like when they get there. If you don't' want to change, you don't want to come here.”

There are people who said that their experiences at Heartland were close to hell. But there are plenty of others still living there today who see Heartland as paradise or refuge – a place that took them when nowhere else would.

The truth is, Heartland is neither heaven nor hell. It’s a place that can help, and it can inflict lasting wounds. 

• • •

Special thanks to JanetSaidiand CaseyMorellfor their reporting on this story. 

Digital layout and mixing by Austin Federa

Music by PoddingtonBear, and Uncle WoodySullender and Seamus Cater

NOTE: In the original version of this story, we quoted Maiah Swanson as saying she was "in the hospital for 2 weeks," due to the injuries she sustained at Heartland. She later clarified that she was in and out of the hospital and doctors offices for that time period and was not admitted to the hospital for two weeks. We also originally said Swanson was adopted from Romania. She was in fact adopted from Bulgaria. 

Abigail Keel is a senior student at the Missouri School of Journalism. She is originally from St. Louis, Missouri and grew up hating the drone of public radio in her parent's car. In high school, she had a job picking up trash in a park where she listened to podcasts for entertainment and made a permanent switch to public-radio lover. She's volunteered and interned for Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, IL, and worked on the KBIA shows Faith and Values, Intersection and CoMO Explained.
Ryan served as the KBIA News Director from February 2011 to September 2023
Related Content