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Protecting Children from Abuse in Unlicensed Boarding Schools

by Jessica Seitz, Director of Public Policy at Missouri Kids First

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month

In September 2020, the Kansas City Star released the first article in what would become a months-long series that is still ongoing detailing horrific cases of physical and sexual abuse at a several unlicensed boarding schools throughout southern Missouri. When reports revealed loopholes in child protection law allowing schools to remain open despite numerous substantiated reports of abuse, lawmakers immediately called for actions to be taken. 

Lack of oversight of unlicensed boarding schools, or youth residential facilities, has been an issue of concern for Missouri child advocates for decades. However, the last time the legislature tried unsuccessfully to take action was over twenty years ago. Under a statute that has been on the books since 1982, Missouri has a full religious exemption from any oversight, though no documentation is required to claim the exemption. According to a review by the National Conference of State Legislatures, only six states have formal license exemptions for religious-based youth residential facilities, and Missouri is one of just two states that require no additional regulations or licensing to operate these facilities. 

House Bills 557 & 560, introduced by Representatives Rudy Veit (R-Wardsville) and Keri Ingle (D-Lee’s Summit) would provide minimum protections for children living in unlicensed residential facilities to help keep kids in Missouri safe from abuse and to ensure predators are not shielded due to lack of oversight. There are three main issues HB 557/560 seeks to address: 

  1. NOTIFICATION: Knowing where these residential care facilities are. Right now, these facilities are allowed to operate in darkness. There is no centralized way to collect and house information and no state agency has oversight authority. HB 557/560 requires registration with the state and for the Department of Social Services to maintain a list of all residential care facilities 
  2. SAFETY CHECKS: Requiring facilities to meet minimal health and safety standards, including background checks and allowing regulators to check the safety and well-being of children. HB 557/560 also allows the Children’s Division to petition the court for an order directing a facility to present a child subject to an abuse and neglect investigation, and any other children living in the facility if they are suspected to be in danger, for an assessment of a child’s health, safety and well-being.
  3. AUTHORITY TO CLOSE FACILITIES FOR NON-COMPLIANCE: Establishing a mechanism to shut these facilities down if they fail to comply with the minimum notification requirements. Under HB 557/560 , failure to comply with the law—operating without notification—could ultimately result in the removal of children or a facility being shut down. This shall only be initiated if the facility is providing care without notification, failing to comply with minimum standards including background checks or an immediate health, safety or welfare concern for the children at the facility.

Without some sort of oversight, programs that engage in abusive practices will continue to slip through the cracks in Missouri, leaving behind traumatized children. Missouri has become a haven for people who harm children. We know of at least seven schools that have moved to Missouri after being investigated or shut down in other states for abuse or neglect. Survivors of abuse courageously came forward to tell their stories to lawmakers and urge them to take action. 

This legislation is critical to protecting children in our state and it is long overdue.

As Child Abuse Prevention Month comes to a close this year, HB 557/560 is nearing the finish line, passing the full House unanimously in March and Senate Committee. At Missouri KidsFirst we are very optimistic for its passage and grateful for the wide support from lawmakers, advocates and the religious community. 

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