Their daughter was nearly 2,000 miles away in a Christian boarding school in southwest Missouri and Brian and Michelle Stoddard knew they needed to get her out.
The couple had been reading social media posts from women who had once been at Circle of Hope. And they had watched a video taken in March that appeared to capture Boyd Householder — who runs the school with his wife, Stephanie — endorsing the use of violence between the girls.
“We were going to bed one night, and just both of us, in our hearts we knew,” said Michelle Stoddard, of the Seattle area. “God was like, ‘Get up and start driving.’ And we did. We dumped everything in our refrigerator into a cooler and drove 32 hours straight.”
That was in late July. About two weeks later, after their 17-year-old daughter Emily told a Cedar County Sheriff’s deputy stories from inside Circle of Hope, authorities removed 25 girls from the reform school.
Now, emboldened by recent events and the involvement of local and state officials, more former residents are coming forward to share similar horror stories they say have played out at the school that has close ties to the independent fundamental Baptist church.
“I can confirm there is an ongoing investigation in this matter,” Ty Gaither, Cedar County prosecuting attorney, told The Star.
Gaither said his office expected to receive “investigative” reports from local law enforcement and state departments “in the near future.”
On Thursday, Gaither announced that a search warrant was executed at Circle of Hope on Tuesday “pursuant to an ongoing investigation.” A source with knowledge of the investigation said items authorities were seeking included computers and electronics, such as hidden cameras and surveillance equipment.
The boarding school has been investigated many times before. In fact, it has had four substantiated reports of abuse and neglect since it opened in 2006, The Star has learned.
But because faith-based Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch is exempt from state licensure, the Missouri Department of Social Services “does not have authority” over the facility’s operations, said Rebecca Woelfel, an agency spokeswoman.
In response to questions from The Star, Woelfel said the boarding school has had one substantiated report of neglect, one substantiated report of physical abuse and neglect, and two substantiated reports of sexual abuse recorded in the state’s central registry. She did not say when the reports were made or whom the allegations were against.
The Star talked to several young women who have lived at Circle of Hope and parents who have sent their daughters there. The former residents described in vivid detail a place that sounded more like a maximum-security prison than a Christian school for troubled girls.
They told of punishment that included withholding food and water and being forced to stand against a wall for hours on end for even the most minor infraction. They explained how they were restrained — a procedure in which they said that after shoving a girl to the floor, Boyd Householder would kneel and press his knee on the back of her neck while four other girls or staff members were required to push as hard as they could on the pressure points on her arms and legs.
Girls said they were told they would go to hell if they ever wore pants and were allowed only two changes of clothes per week. They were allotted four squares of toilet paper when using the restroom, and their rare phone calls with parents were strictly monitored and cut off if they complained or didn’t say the “right” things. School was not a priority, they said, and at times they had no teachers.
The Householders could not be reached for comment. They did not respond to emails, and the phone at Circle of Hope went unanswered. Their attorney, Jay Kirksey, did not return phone calls requesting comment.
In a June 15 letter to pastors of churches that have supported the Circle of Hope, Boyd Householder — whose Twitter handle is Gunslinger4God — said he wanted to explain “the attacks being made against us on Social Media.”
He blamed the problems on his daughter and mother-in-law, who he said had turned their daughter against them. Their daughter, he said, “has determined that she will force Circle of Hope Girls Ranch to shut down.”
“…We know that the devil hates what we do and he will stop at nothing to stop us,” he wrote.
In her two years at the school, Emily Stoddard said state child protection workers — referred to as “Satan’s soldiers” by Boyd Householder — came to the property multiple times. Deputies often would come along as well.
Girls were told they could speak to the child protection workers if their parents approved. If they did, though, girls said they knew that the Householders would be listening in a nearby room or grill them when it was over to learn what was said.
And if the couple didn’t like what girls said to the workers, they knew they would be punished.
By the end of July, Emily’s parents arrived at the school — which they paid $1,500 a month for her to attend — to take her home. They wanted to show up unannounced to get their daughter, but during their drive from Washington, the Stoddards got a call from Householder, who said Emily needed to go home now.
In recent weeks, the teen had begun to understand that what was happening at the ranch wasn’t right and she had been standing up to Householder. And now she worried what her family would think. Would she be in more trouble?
“From what I would hear from Boyd and Stephanie, I thought my parents would be mad at me and they believed the Householders,” Emily said. “I was very scared, like even thinking about, ‘Are they even going to want to hug me?’ … I was like really nervous and fearful. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
What she didn’t know is that her parents, too, were unsure. As her dad put it: “We didn’t even know if she wanted to come home.”
But she did. And not just for herself.
As Emily left the ranch that late July day, she thought of the paper tucked in the sole of her tennis shoe. It had the names of three girls’ parents and their phone numbers — their hope to get rescued, too.
LACK OF OVERSIGHT
The ranch is located less than seven miles from Humansville on Highway N in Cedar County. Next to the main buildings, a Trump 2020 flag waves alongside American flags and a nearby white warning sign:
“SMILE YOU ARE ON CAMERA,” it reads.
Below are the “Campus Rules:” No weapons, except authorized persons. No smoking. No cursing. No alcohol and no drugs.
The last rule: “You must speak English America’s language.”
The Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch opened its doors to three girls on July 1, 2006, according to the school’s website. Since then, the reform school has expanded to more than 20 girls.
“The girls come from all walks of life, some have been in gangs, drugs, alcohol, boys, etc,” the website says. “Some have been physically violent with their families and some have been abused. Most of them have been adopted, or come from broken homes and do not know how to deal with the past.
“Circle of Hope’s goal is to help young ladies who were destroying their lives through poor choices and behaviors, change their future. … We use the BIBLE to teach them that they are to obey their Parents and the authority over them.”
The Circle of Hope website has two sections containing testimonials from parents and former students, many praising the Householders for turning their daughters’ lives around.
“We are so grateful to Circle of Hope and God for giving us our daughter back,” wrote parents identified only as “I” and “G.”
“I honestly do not know what would have happened to her if not for this wonderful ranch and caring people! Our daughter loves and cherishes the Householders as well as we do for the love and care that they show and have shown. I recommend Circle of Hope for anyone that is at the end of their rope with their daughter.”
Circle of Hope has a strong connection to independent fundamental Baptist churches, which teach followers to separate themselves from worldly influence. Some of the former residents said their parents attended IFB churches and their pastors recommended that they send them to the Missouri school.
The school isn’t registered with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“We don’t have purview over non-public schools,” said an education department spokeswoman. “We don’t regulate private schools in any way.”
In correspondence with parents, Boyd Householder makes it clear that he is in charge.
“I need to address a few items, the first being the reason your daughter has been placed at Circle of Hope,” he wrote in an Oct. 19, 2007, letter. “She was misbehaving and disrespectful and you felt that you had no other choice. You wanted her life to change and her behavior to change. I cannot understand why I receive so many phone calls questioning my decisions and rules, when what you did at home did not seem to work.”
He told them he realized the letter seemed harsh, “but as the contract states, I have a Non-Interference Policy.”
“It is my job to get her to change her life, if you do not allow me to do this then you are wasting my time, your time and money and your daughter’s time … I will NOT argue with another parent about how I do things at Circle of Hope, if you do not agree with me you have a choice deal with it or take your daughter back.”
A DAUGHTER SPEAKS UP
Amanda Householder was 15 when her parents opened Circle of Hope. Before that, the family lived in nearby Stockton, where her father worked at Agape Boarding School, a Christian home for troubled boys.
She said “Brother House,” as Boyd Householder was called, required girls to wear different shirt colors to distinguish their rank, which he determined based on their behavior and attitude.
“When I was there, when you came in, you were an orange shirt, and then you worked your way up,” said Amanda, now 29.
There were few adult staff, Amanda said: “They used the older teenagers. So the teens were literally running that place.”
Each day, Amanda said, the girls performed manual labor.
“They would go out and clean the horse pens,” she said. “Rarely would we get to ride the horses or anything like that. They would just do farm work. Digging holes for posts, moving brush from one place to another.“
The school curriculum they used, Amanda said, was Christian-based and required students to work at their own pace.
“You basically teach yourself,” she said. “Getting school taken away from you was a punishment. And my dad would use that a lot.”
On Sundays and Wednesday nights, she said, everyone was required to attend Berean Baptist Church in Springfield, an independent fundamental Baptist church about an hour’s drive from the school. The church’s pastor, Jeff Ables, sits on the Circle of Hope board of directors, according to its most recent tax form.
A few months after the school opened, Amanda, still 15, ran away with two of the residents. The trio ended up in New Mexico. After learning of the girls’ location, Boyd Householder and Amanda’s grandmother flew out and brought her home. When they got back, Amanda said, “he threw me up against the wall and told me I will stay there until he says.”
“The Wall” was one of Brother House’s favorite forms of punishment, Amanda said.
“I don’t remember a time when somebody wasn’t on the wall,” she said. “The only thing you can do is look straight ahead with your nose touching the wall or look down reading a Bible. You don’t get to sit down. You’re not allowed to eat, and you can’t use the restroom until they let you.”
After that, Amanda said, she looked forward to the day she turned 18 so she could leave.
She didn’t have to wait that long. Her parents kicked her out at 17, she said, after she was reported for trying to console a young girl who was crying because she was afraid her mother was going to hell for wearing pants.
Amanda went to live with her grandparents in Florida, but left after a month because her grandfather died. She soon found herself in a bad relationship and then a marriage that didn’t work out. She eventually moved to California, where she now lives with her sons, ages 5 and 8.
STORIES OF ABUSE EMERGE
In 2010, Amanda said, some of the girls from Circle of Hope started coming forward with stories of physical and emotional abuse. At first, she said, she wasn’t supportive.
“And then I had my own kids, and a lot of stuff just started coming back and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this was really wrong.’ So in 2015, I reached out to a lot of them, and we started working together.”
Amanda said her therapist called to report the concerns about Circle of Hope to the state in 2015 but never heard back. She called the child abuse and neglect hotline herself in 2016, she said, but didn’t get a return call. In 2018, she said, a woman whose sister had been sent to the Circle of Hope contacted a Missouri Highway Patrol officer.
“And he did a huge investigation,” she said.
When the investigation appeared to go nowhere, Amanda said, “We kind of got discouraged. A lot of girls backed away. They stopped talking about it, which is totally understandable.”
Then in March, Joseph Askins, a friend of Boyd and Stephanie Householder, contacted her. He’d just gone to see them, he said, and was so upset at the way Boyd Householder had treated the girls that he secretly took video on his cellphone in which Householder could be heard telling some of the girls to assault another.
“It shook me up so much,” Amanda said. She showed it to the former residents she’d been communicating with.
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Source: Kansas City Star