Witnesses testifying in favor of legislation that would give the state more knowledge and oversight over religiously affiliated youth homes shared emotional accounts of abuse at such facilities and pressured lawmakers to act at a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
The Senate's Seniors, Families, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee heard testimony on HBs 557 and 560, identical bills from Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, and Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee's Summit. The Residential Care Facility Notification Act would require "license-exempt" residential care facilities, including those affiliated with a religious organization, to disclose their existence and location to the state and give staff background checks.
"Our goal was to try to protect the children's rights and also, at the same time, protect the religious rights of religious organizations that are promoting these homes," Veit told the committee. "Because I truly believe, while we've seen some horrible stuff on the news, and encounters and horrible stuff in testimony, there are some very good homes out there also."
Veit emphasized integral operations would not be stopped by the legislation.
"This bill is not designed to put any of them out of business," he said. "I'm not asking anybody to do anything that a good businessman or woman would not do."
Witnesses, many of them victims of abuse experienced at faith-based youth homes or boarding schools, traveled from around the country to address the committee. Some came from as far as Houston, Pennsylvania and California, they said.
One witness, who said she was removed from a facility at age 11 after "extreme abuse," said malicious care facilities "make money off of children's hurt, trauma and pain."
"We come out damaged," she said. "They come out rich."
Other witnesses shared stories of being beaten, forced to sit in folding chairs facing a corner for their waking hours and being bound to a goat.
"I know animals that get treated better than students" at Agape Boarding School, one witness, who attended the school, said. Agape still operates in Stockton.
Though Tuesday's Senate session extended well into the early hours of Wednesday morning, Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis, who sits on the committee, told witnesses their stories were important enough to keep the hearing on as scheduled.
"Your stories, your experiences are horrific," Schupp said. "I think that you need to know that you're the ones who are going to make the change my heart goes out to you."
HB 557 was unanimously approved by the Missouri House, 148-0, on March 29.