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Missouri enacts protections for children at reform schools

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — In what supporters called a “starting point,” Missouri enshrined greater protections for children and young adults in unlicensed boarding and reform facilities with a new law Wednesday adding additional oversight. 

The law requires facilities to register with the state and meet certain health and safety standards, including background checks. It also gives Missouri’s Children’s Division the ability to ask courts to order facilities to produce individuals if it determines there is a credible abuse or neglect allegation or if it’s in the best interest of the child.

HB 557, a bipartisan effort from Reps. Rudy Veit and Keri Ingle, gives the Department of Social Services (DSS) the ability to conduct background checks of applicants for these facilities. Individuals who are registered sex offenders or have been found to be perpetrators of child abuse will be ineligible for employment. 

The new law also mandates residential care facilities allow parents and guardians unencumbered access to their children without any prior notification. 

“This is a bill that protects a lot of children in the most vulnerable stages — children placed in the care of someone else 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At the same time, it protects the religious freedoms of truly religious organizations that assist these children,” Veit told The Missouri Times. “It’s a step toward making sure that evil people don’t come into our state and try to take advantage of our most vulnerable children under the guise of religion.” 

Ingle said the bill was “decades overdue.” 

“This bipartisan piece of legislation is a starting point to bring much-needed protection and oversight to some of Missouri’s most vulnerable children,” she said. “The horrific abuses we have seen reported in state and national media are unfortunately the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the injustices suffered by so many children at the hands of truly evil individuals.” 

It’s unclear just how many of these unlicensed facilities are operating in Missouri; DSS does not have an estimate, a spokesperson said. But as this bill progressed through the legislature, the owners of the now-defunct Circle of Hope Girls Ranch and Boarding School were arrested and face more than 100 criminal charges for allegedly mentally, sexually, and physically abusing those in their care — one of the most high-profile and heinous cases in the state. 

The bill swiftly made it through the legislative session with bipartisan support during session. Witnesses came from across the country to deliver emotional testimonies about their times at facilities in Missouri. 

One survivor recalled watching his peers be drowned and then resuscitated. Others described receiving beatings for saying “gosh” or spending days tied to a goat. Many recounted battling anxiety and depression following the abuse. 

The bill has an emergency clause, meaning it will go into effect upon the governor’s signature. 

Prior to the law, Missouri was one of only two states that did not regulate certain youth residential facilities. 

“This law closes a loophole in our child protection system that had gone unaddressed for decades,” Jessica Seitz, interim executive director of Missouri KidsFirst, said. “HB 557 provides minimum protections for children living in unlicensed residential facilities to help keep them safe and to ensure that predators are not shielded due to lack of oversight. The signing of this bill means that our state will no longer be a haven for people who harm children.” 

The legislation caught the eye of businesswoman and celebrity Paris Hilton — a stalwart advocate for protections for those in the care of residential facilities. Hilton came forward last year to describe the “continuous torture” she endured while attending boarding school in Utah as a teenager. 

Paris Hilton has testified in support of multiple bills across the country — including at the Utah State Capitol (pictured here) — to add greater protections for children and young adults at reform and boarding schools. Hilton has described her experience of being abused while she attended a school in Utah as a teenager. (PROVIDED)

Since then, Hilton has testified in support of successful legislation in Oregon regulating transport companies (banning handcuffs and blindfolds) and prohibiting certain restraints in wilderness and residential programs. She also advocated for successful legislation in Utah that increased the number of inspections, banned the use of chemical and mechanical restraints, restricted the use of solitary confinement and strip searches as punitive punishment, mandated unmonitored weekly communication with an individual’s family, and required suicide prevention and discrimination training. 

“It is our duty to ensure that any place where children are is safe, regardless of religious affiliation,” Hilton said in a statement to The Missouri Times. “This bill is a critical step to protecting youth in religious-based facilities, and I applaud Gov. Parson for signing HB 557 into law! Today, we celebrate Missouri [which] has now joined a number of states who have successfully taken action to address the systemic issues of abuse and neglect in congregate care facilities across the nation. Without the continued support from survivors, advocates, and lawmakers, this would not be possible. 

“Your voice matters, and together we have a chance to end institutional abuse and heal our children and families.”