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Senators hear testimony, including from Paris Hilton, on reform school protections

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Beaten for saying “gosh.” Days spent tied to a goat. Held underwater until nearly drowned. 

Those were just a few memories shared by about a dozen people from all over the country who testified before a Senate committee Wednesday afternoon, pleading for lawmakers to put in place mechanisms to protect children and young adults at Missouri’s unlicensed boarding and reform facilities. A bipartisan effort from Reps. Rudy Veit and Keri Ingle would give the state the ability to perform background checks and regulate the facilities. 

“I’m not asking anybody to do anything that good a good businessman or woman would not do — background check, safety inspection, fire inspection, keep medical records,” Veit, a Republican, told the Senate Seniors, Family, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee of HB 557

The bill also allows courts to require a facility to produce children should there be any suspicion of abuse or neglect. 

Ingle noted some reform schools take in children with known instances of past “delinquent behaviors.” That stigma could cause some adults not to believe their stories of abuse when they attempt to come forward, she said. 

“Child abuse is child abuse no matter where the abuse takes place,” Ingle said. 

Allen Knoll, a survivor, said he did not want to shut facilities down but stop the continued abuse that occurs. He said he attended a facility for five years where he had pit bulls sicced on him and watched others be drowned and then resuscitated. The abuse he endured and witnessed had a lasting effect on him, including anxiety and depression. 

“Imagine what that’s like — being away from home and being 10 years old, watching that and being a part of that,” Knoll said. “I lived in fear, fear of literally dying, for years.” 

Among those who testified in support of the bill was celebrity Paris Hilton, a member of her team confirmed. Hilton came forward last year to describe the “continuous torture” she endured while attending boarding school in Utah as a teenager. 

“I believe that no child should have to endure the harmful treatment that I experienced, and I urge Missouri legislators to listen to the survivors who are submitting their testimonies for the hearing,” Hilton said in written testimony provided to the committee. “These stories reveal a pattern of abuse across the state’s many residential facilities and highlight the urgent need for oversight.” 

During the emotional hearing, Sens. Holly Rehder and Jill Schupp both took time to thank the witnesses for sharing their stories and advocating for other children. 

“Thank you. You have gone the extra mile to get here and to be here before us, and it is so appreciated,” Schupp said. “Your stories, your experiences are horrific but they matter, and you need to know that you’re the ones who are going to make the change. … My heart goes out to you, and you’re brave and you’re strong and courageous for being here.” 

Missouri is one of only two states that does not have oversight of certain religious reform schools or require them to be licensed. Witnesses testified that abuse has occurred at both licensed and unlicensed facilities. 

Veit said the bill was not designed to close any law-abiding school operating in good faith. Those schools, Veit said, are needed to help turn children’s lives around for the better. 

Earlier this year, 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, physically abusing those in their care. Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office is investigating as at least 16 victims have come forward. 

During Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Rick Brattin lambasted some of the facilities for using a religious name or posing as a religious institution, specifically pointing to the Agape Boarding School. The school is also being investigated by the Attorney General’s Office for abuse, and multiple witnesses at the hearing were former members of the facility. 

“These aren’t people of faith who are running these. These are evil monsters who are counterfeits of true Christianity,” Brattin said. “We’ve got to protect those kids no matter where they’re at. We’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do.” 

Witnesses came from California, Texas, and Pennsylvania to appear before the hearing. A lobbyist for CNS International Ministries which oversees the Heartland Christian Academy was the person who testified against the bill.

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill following the nearly 2-hour hearing. It has already passed the House in a unanimous vote.