JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri would gain greater oversight of unlicensed residential care facilities for children under legislation that won final approval Thursday following allegations of long-running abuse at some boarding schools.
The legislation, which now goes to Gov. Mike Parson, would require the directors of unlicensed facilities providing around-the-clock lodging and care for children to notify the Department of Social Services of their existence and provide details about their ownership and personnel. Staff, contractors and and volunteers with access to children would have to undergo criminal background checks.
“This is designed to ensure the safety of children who are in these facilities,” said Sen. Bill White, a Republican attorney from Joplin who previously handled juvenile neglect, delinquency and abuse cases.
A Missouri law dating to 1982 exempts religious residential care facilities from state licensure requirements. The Kansas City Star reported last year that several faith-based boarding schools had relocated to Missouri after being investigated or shut down for abuse or neglect in other states. But Missouri had no records of how many unlicensed boarding schools are in the state.
In February, former residents testified to legislators about being hit, restrained, sexually abused or deprived of food and water at some facilities.
In March, Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed more than 100 criminal charges against Boyd and Stephanie Householder, the owners and operators of the former Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in Cedar County. The charges include numerous counts of abuse and neglect of a child; Boyd Householder also faces charges of statutory rape and sodomy, among other things.
The Householders have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are awaiting trial.
Schmitt has described the allegations as "one of the most widespread cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse practiced against young girls in Missouri history.”
Since the girls' reform school opened in 2006, numerous complaints of mistreatment had been filed with law enforcement or state welfare agencies.
“This bill will grant law enforcement and our government the tools it needs to hold accountable the monsters perpetrating physical and sexual abuse and neglect on kids at some of these institutions,” said Rep. Keri Ingle, a Democrat from Lee's Summit.
Some lawmakers who opposed the legislation said the problem rests with the response by individual authorities, not state policies.
"We don’t have a lack of enough laws, we have a lack of follow through on behalf of our bureaucracy,” said state Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, of Shelbina, one of nine Republican senators who voted against the bill Tuesday.
The House, which had passed an earlier version of the bill, approved the final version Thursday by a 147-1 vote.
The legislation would allow prosecutors or state children's services officials to ask a judge to remove children or shut down facilities that violate state requirements or when there is an immediate concern about the health or safety of children.
The bill also would require facilities to comply with fire, safety and health inspections and to allow parents or guardians “unencumbered access” to their children without having to provide notification that they are coming.