By JIM SALTER
Maggie Drew’s father sent her to Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch in Missouri in 2007, hoping that 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 residence’s founders and left with permanent spinal injuries after falling from a hay barn for which she received no medical attention.
Only 25 miles further on at another Christian boarding school, Brett Harper says he endured abuse that included staff members bumping on his back.
They are among dozens of people who say they were abused at either Circle of Hope or Agape Boarding School – allegations that helped bring about a new Missouri law aimed at keeping religious boarding schools in check that for decades without any supervision 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 about 100 charges, some of which allege sexual abuse. Agape’s doctor is charged with child sex offenses and five employees are charged with assault, though Missouri’s attorney general thinks many more workers should have been charged.
The schools are not related 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 children were educated. Even the health department had no oversight, even for schools that claimed to address mental health, behavior, and addiction issues.
The new law passed last year followed extensive coverage by The Kansas City Star which found that several faith-based residences, including Agape, had moved to Missouri after being investigated or closed for abuse or neglect elsewhere.
Lawmakers heard testimony from alumni 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 does not usually name victims of sexual abuse, but Larson and Drew have both come forward in public to discuss the allegations.
Supporters of religious boarding schools say they provide structure to difficult young people. Megan Stokes, executive director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, said the violation alleged at Agape and Circle of Hope is extremely unusual.
But unlike Missouri and many other states, her trade association requires state licenses for all of its 150 member schools, including the religious ones. Agape is not a member, nor is 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 must obey their parents and the authority over them,” reads the school’s website, which has been removed.
The school closed amid a 2020 inquiry; 25 girls were removed. In March 2021, Boyd Householder (72) was charged with 79 crimes and Stephanie (56) with 22.
Sixteen former residents claimed they were restrained with handcuffs, beaten with belts and punched. Nearly two dozen charges against Boyd Householder accuse him of sexual contact with girls.
Messages left with the Homeowners’ 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 turned upside down when her brother died in a car wreck in 2007. Her grieving father joined a church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Drew said when she refused to wear a skirt and her points dropped, church leaders persuaded her father to send her to Circle of Hope.
“It was absolute torture,” said Drew, who also accused the Homeowners of stealing a $ 25,000 inheritance from her.
James Clemensen, a retired California soldier, and his wife, Kathy, started Agape in Stockton, Missouri, in 1990. He told a reporter in 2002 that he chose Missouri because of his lack of regulation. He passed away in October.
Agape serves 120-150 boys between the ages of 12-17. The website says it is a non-profit school “designed to show God’s love for teenage boys struggling with behavioral issues that could threaten their future.”
The school remains open. Five staff members were charged in September with abusing students. In December, dr. David Smock charged with sexual abuse. He denied guilt in March.
Telephone messages left with Agape’s director and Smock’s lawyer were not returned.
Harper was 14 when he was sent there in 1999 from his rural home in Oregon. Now 36, he remembered for long hours moving large stones from one heap to another, picking up wood by hand and clearing soil. Harper said his injuries did not enable him to keep a job.
“What I went through at Agape prepared me for abusive relationships with people, it prepared me for an ignorant young man who did not know how the world works, it destroyed my family relationship,” Harper said.
Missouri’s new law sets minimum health and safety requirements for boarding schools, which still do not need to be licensed. The law requires background checks for employees; requires adequate food, clothing and medical care for students; and says parents should be allowed access to their children at any time without prior notice.
Following 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 prosecutor Ty Gaither does not plan to file any more.
“The attorney general has his agenda,” Gaither said. “I am an experienced prosecutor and I have what I believe the appropriate charges have been filed.”
James Clidence, who taught math at Agape from 2012 to 2015, said he left after seeing such worrying abuse that his wife contacted federal, state and local authorities. No one will investigate, he said.
“I am for religious freedom. I’m a pastor. But at this point we are talking about children’s well-being, ”said Clidence, who now runs a Baptist church in Maryland.
Harper is among those questioning whether religious boarding schools will actually be investigated in Missouri.
“How many things have to happen before they act?” he asked.