‘We beg you.’ Former boarding school students urge Missouri AG to investigate abuse

Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]

April 15, 2024

By Judy L. Thomas and Laura Bauer

Frustrated by continued abuse allegations at Missouri’s unlicensed Christian boarding schools, former students on Monday implored Attorney General Andrew Bailey to intervene.

In a letter delivered to Bailey’s Jefferson City office, several former students called on him to launch a state-wide investigation and warn parents about what they say has gone on inside some of these schools for far too long.

They also want Bailey to contact prosecutors in counties where the schools are located and urge them to conduct their own investigations.

“To spare more children the devastating life-long impacts of horrific abuse, we beg you — as emphatically as possible — to help expose, deter and prevent potential crimes and criminal cover ups at dozens of similar, largely-under-the-radar ‘schools’ in remote parts of Missouri,” the letter says. “Use your bully pulpit to publicly help expose these troubling reports and allegations.”

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests released the letter Monday morning before a news conference outside Bailey’s office.

“Vulnerable kids hundreds of miles from home in these remote facilities with virtually no outside oversight or monitoring is a recipe for disaster and a great temptation for predators,” said David Clohessy, the organization’s former national director.

“The operators of these institutions have great incentive to ignore or conceal abuse. As Missouri’s top law enforcement official, Andrew Bailey must be proactive and show courage and leadership if these horrors are to be stopped.”

In 2021 and 2022, former Attorney General Eric Schmitt investigated two boarding schools in southwest Missouri — Circle of Hope Girls Ranch and Agape Boarding School, both in Cedar County. Those investigations, including additional work by the Cedar County prosecutor, led to abuse and neglect charges of seven staffers at both schools. Circle of Hope and Agape have since closed.

Bailey and his office continue to prosecute Boyd and Stephanie Householder, former owners of Circle of Hope, who face nearly 100 felony counts of child abuse and neglect. They are scheduled for trial in late October.

In response to questions from The Star regarding Monday’s letter, Bailey provided this statement via email: “I will always fight for Missouri to be the safest state in the nation for children.” He did not elaborate.

Earlier this year, after five students ran away from Lighthouse Christian Academy in a remote part of southeast Missouri, the Wayne County sheriff began investigating abuse allegations. Owners Larry and Carmen Musgrave, ages 57 and 64, have since been charged with kidnapping and another staffer at the school was charged with abuse of a child.

Wayne County Sheriff Dean Finch said he continues to investigate and expects more charges.

In interviews with The Star, more than a dozen former Lighthouse Christian Academy students have described how they said they were treated at the school over the past nearly 20 years. That included physical abuse and restraints, not being allowed to make eye contact with fellow students, standing for hours at a time staring at a wall when they were in trouble and being forced to do manual labor to benefit the school.

They also detailed how they were often hungry at the school and said food was used as a punishment. If they were in trouble, they said, they were given little to eat, such as a tortilla smeared with peanut butter for breakfast or plain white rice for dinner.

And, they said, they had to watch as other students ate large portions of prepared meals.

The allegations are similar to those made by more than 80 former students The Star interviewed who attended other unlicensed boarding schools in southern Missouri since the late 1990s.

For the past 20 years, child advocates and some lawmakers have proposed more regulations of Missouri’s Christian boarding schools — even requiring state licensure — but that’s been met with extreme pushback. After a Star investigation, beginning in August 2020, lawmakers did pass a measure implementing some oversight of these facilities.

Monday’s letter to the attorney general acknowledged the past obstacles in garnering extensive change.

“If history is any guide, the operators of these facilities may cry ‘religious freedom’ and ‘discrimination,’” it said. “Please don’t be misled, distracted or deterred by such red herrings.

“We understand and respect religious freedom. But actions and beliefs are separate things.”

Julianna Davis attended Lighthouse Christian Academy near Piedmont, run by ABM Ministries, more than 15 years ago and said she wasn’t allowed to leave when she turned 18. She said that one of the owners locked her in a room on her 18th birthday and she was told she had to stay at the school until she turned 21.

Four months after her 18th birthday, she went home for a visit and then to college. And Davis never went back to the Show-Me State. Her experience led to the kidnapping charges against the Musgraves.

Davis, who last year graduated with a doctorate of education in trauma counseling, said she doesn’t see how increasing laws and regulations in Missouri would infringe on anyone’s religious freedoms.

“Adults are free to practice whatever religion and whatever beliefs they want to practice — that’s fine,” she told The Star on Monday. “But we also know that just like other types of crimes involving vulnerable populations, most criminals are what we consider opportunistic.”

“… So the lack of regulations and laws and oversight over these religious boarding schools isn’t actually increasing anybody’s religious freedom. It’s actually increasing opportunistic criminals’ ability to get away with things.”

The six former students, including Davis, who signed the letter to Bailey, attended Agape Boarding School, Circle of Hope Girls Ranch and Lighthouse Christian Academy.

“As Missouri’s top law enforcement official, we feel strongly that you can no longer ignore the growing crisis involving kids in the essentially unregulated, mostly for-profit, purportedly religious boarding ‘schools’ where dozens of vulnerable kids have been — and likely still are being — abused,” their letter said.

“Crisis is not an exaggeration given the recent disturbing disclosures of known and suspected child sex crimes that have surfaced at facilities like Agape School in Stockton, Lighthouse Academy in Piedmont, Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in Humansville and Kanakuk Kamps in Branson.”

Ample evidence exists in the public record, the letter said, “that these institutions lack oversight and sometimes attract predators who hurt kids and supervisors who ignore or hide suspicious or criminal acts.”