education, psychology, teen help

Circle of Hope Ranch: Another Missouri Christian “teen help” snake pit closes…

Good morning, everybody. I am writing today’s post on my new laptop. It’s the first laptop I have bought since July 2014, just before we moved back to Germany from Texas. I bought my first laptop because my computer had been shipped and I predicted wanting to have a computer for the times when I traveled. It seems crazy to buy a new computer for travel now… especially since my old machine still works. But since I’m not having much fun right now, I decided it was time to upgrade. I have Bill’s blessing, too!

This morning, I became aware of yet another Christian boarding school in Missouri that was just closed. The fact that this school was in Missouri is noteworthy, since Missouri is notorious for having little oversight over private boarding schools, such as the now defunct Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy. Consequently, there are a lot of “teen help” type schools in that state, especially those affiliated with independent Baptist churches. These schools are often located in tiny, rural towns and are set up on vast, remote plots of land, free from the prying eyes of neighbors and authorities, and hard for the children to escape.

The name of the school I’m writing of today is Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch and Boarding School. This place, located in Humansville, a hamlet in southwestern Missouri, was run by Christian couple Boyd and Stephanie Householder, aged 71 and 55 respectively. Boyd Householder faces 79 felony counts and one misdemeanor, which include “charges for child molestation, sodomy, sexual contact with a student and neglect of a child.” His wife, Stephanie, is charged with 22 felony counts of “abuse or neglect of a child, and endangering the welfare of a child.”

News item about Circle of Hope Ranch.

The alleged abuses took place between 2017 and 2020, although Boyd Householder opened the school in 2006. He claimed that his methods could “reform rebellious teenage girls.” His allegedly abusive brand of straightening out hundreds of girls went unabated until his own daughter, Amanda, spoke out on Tik Tok. Amanda has not spoken to her parents since 2016. The school’s official Web site is now defunct, but you can access an archived version of it here.

Having done my fair share of studying these types of boarding schools, it comes as no surprise to me that the Householders are accused of using cruel methods to control their charges. The Christian couple is accused of withholding food, restraining girls, and forcing them to do manual labor. Girls were allegedly restrained with handcuffs and zip ties, and gagged with dirty socks. It occurs to me that the Householders may have stumbled across an effective way to satisfy their needs… free labor that parents actually PAID them to force their daughters to do, and sexual kink. The fact that Householder used dirty sock gags and hard restraints on teenaged girls suggests to me that he’s likely a sexual deviant.

Besides obviously being perverted, Householder also supposedly told one of his charges how to commit suicide. He also allegedly pushed a girl down stairs. Past residents have also alleged that Householder slammed girls’ heads against walls, kept them in strict isolation, poured hot sauce in their mouths, and used duct tape and socks to prevent a girl from using her hands. Boyd Householder’s wife, Stephanie, was less of a participant in the abuse, but aided and abetted her husband in committing them.

As I write this post this morning, I’m watching the latest season of 60 Days In, a reality show that has civilians voluntarily entering jails undercover in an effort to help wardens improve security and get information about what goes on inside their facilities. As horrific, dangerous, and violent jails are, at least in the vast majority of them, inmates have basic human rights and some knowledge of when they might be released. Teenagers that are sent to the “therapeutic” or “religious” boarding schools often have no idea when they might be allowed to leave. And they have little to no contact with anyone who can or will advocate for them.

Where was the oversight? Didn’t parents or child welfare workers take note? Well, according to NBC News, legal authorities did receive numerous complaints about Circle of Hope– at least 19 reports were logged since the school was opened in 2006. But thanks to Missouri’s lax laws regarding private school oversight, no actions were ever taken. Consequently, there have been many cases of abuse and even a few deaths at religious and/or military reform schools like Circle of Hope. I mentioned Mountain Park, in Patterson, Missouri, earlier in this post. That school closed in 2004, but eight years prior to its closure, a student was murdered there by another student. There was also a death at the now defunct Thayer Learning Center, a Mormon/military based program based in Kidder, Missouri, when a student collapsed there.

I’ve been following these types of reform programs for about twenty years. Progress has been made, since a lot of the worst programs have been shut down. However, as the news about Circle of Hope suggests, there are still programs out there that operate without any oversight and employ extremely abusive methods to control teens. And a lot of the people running the schools are deviants who are looking after children who need help from trained professionals. But even some of the so called professionals are ill equipped and unsuitable for the job.

I wrote about a program that was located near where I grew up. Hopesville Christian Academy had a history of taking in troubled teens from all over the state of Virginia. Many times, the care was paid for by taxpayers. But then it turned out that the man running the school, who had inherited the job from his father-in-law who had founded it, was sexually abusing his charges.

Also, back in 2008, I became aware of a deviant social worker from Middlesex County, Virginia, the county adjacent to my hometown of Gloucester, Virginia. The social worker, Arthur Bracke, had worked with abused children for many years. But he was also abusing them himself. After he retired from his job, he was outed for being a deviant and wound up in prison, where he later died. As someone who has a MSW myself, it is shocking to me that this man got away with molesting and abusing so many children and managed to retire from his job before he was finally discovered. Before his arrest, Bracke tried to murder one of the three sons he had adopted from the foster care system by intentionally setting his rented house on fire while the 19 year old boy was sleeping in it.

Although there are some good people who work with teens, there are also a lot of bad people. And they take advantage of stressed out, desperate, frustrated parents who just want to pain to end. The kids go off to “rehab” and their parents are kept unaware of what’s going on with their child. Many times, the youngsters come out of these schools scarred by the abuse and traumatized forever. Or, in worse cases, the children end up dying from abuse, neglect, or murder.

I’m glad to read that another school has been shut down. I just wish it had never been allowed to open and operate without any oversight whatsoever. My heart breaks for the children who were forced to endure the abuses at Circle of Hope and other schools like it. Life is hard enough without having your parents send you away to a place where your life is controlled by criminals. I hope justice is served in the Householders’ case. I am all for them getting a fair trial, but I have learned that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It will be interesting to read what becomes of them as they move through the legal system… and I hope Missouri lawmakers are paying attention and take some action to stop these abusive programs. I also hope parents open their eyes and get wise to these places.

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poor judgment, psychology, teen help

Repost: How a Facebook chat convinced me to get VPN access…

Here’s a repost from my original blog. I wrote it in February 2019, about a week before I felt the need to shut down access to that blog because I was being stalked. As I sit here this morning, thinking about what I’d like to write about, I realize that this post was a pretty good one, especially in the wake of Paris Hilton’s revelations about Provo Canyon School. I like to transfer some of the better content from my original blog to this blog when I can. Despite what my stalker and her friends think about me, some of the stuff I write is useful to others. I think this post is one of the useful ones.

As I write this, my husband is probably taxiing to the gate at the Frankfurt Airport.  He’s been gone all week, and I’ve been filling my time with whatever I can.  I watched movies, including Small Sacrifices, which killed about three hours, The Ryan White StoryRight to Kill, and Catherine: An Anorexic’s Tale.  I also watched the premiere episode of Glee, which aired when we lived in Germany the first time.

I was able to watch Glee and The Ryan White Story because I decided to purchase access to a VPN, and that gave me access to American Netflix.  I decided to get the VPN because I’m tired of dealing with geographical restrictions on news stories.  I like to keep up with what’s going on at home.  Unfortunately, the paper I grew up reading, Daily Press, is behind in complying with the privacy laws of Europe.  Consequently, whenever I want to read something on their Web site, I get a message that the content isn’t available in my location.

I used to have a VPN account.  I got it when we first moved back to Stuttgart in 2014, mainly so I could watch Netflix.  But then Netflix started cracking down on VPNs and German Netflix was offering some pretty good shows, anyway.  I cancelled the VPN and mostly didn’t miss it.  What prompted me to get a new account with a different company was a conversation I had on Facebook.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about all of the made for TV movies I’ve been watching this week.  One movie I watched was called Without Consent.  It starred a young Jennie Garth, and was about a privately owned psychiatric hospital for teenagers that basically abused them for insurance money.  I mentioned in my post that this was a big issue in the late 1980s and early 90s.  Psych care for “troubled teens” was a very big business in those days.  It probably still is, but I will admit that I don’t follow that issue as much as I used to.

One of my friends mentioned that she had spent time in one of those facilities.  I got the impression that maybe my description of the movie, Without Consent, had offended her.  I had intended the post to be kind of silly and fun, but you never know how you’ll come across, particularly to people who are sensitive to an issue.

Anyway, as we were chatting, I mentioned Charter Colonial Institute, which was a private psychiatric hospital in Newport News, Virginia.  I grew up not far from Newport News, and I knew of a few of my peers who went there.  It always had kind of a mystique about it.  Sometimes, when I worked at Busch Gardens in James City County, Virginia, I’d take a route to work that caused me to pass that hospital.  I knew its tree lined campus was secure, located very close to Warwick Boulevard and the river.  Charter was such a ubiquitous company in those days; young people would simply speak of “going to Charter” and people would know what they were talking about.

A vintage ad for one of Charter’s many private psychiatric hospitals.  Charter Colonial Institute aired similar ones in my area back in the 80s.

Several years later, Charter’s burgeoning business began to falter.  The hospital changed hands and it was known as Colonial Hospital for a few years.  Then Colonial Hospital went away… and for the past few years, that same “secure” building has been known as Newport News Behavioral Health Center, which is a privately run facility.  I was curious to learn more about what was going on there, so I started searching.  I ran across a couple of news articles from the Daily Press.  Of course, they were blocked in Germany, so I used the cell access on my iPad to start reading, which makes it look like I’m in New York.  But then I ran out of free articles…

I found some news about a young woman named Raven Nichole Keffer.  She was seventeen years old last June, when she arrived in Newport News for treatment for an addiction to heroin.  Born in Montgomery County, Virginia back in 2001, and in the custody of rural Giles County, she had recently spent time in Arlington, Virginia getting treatment for her drug problems before she was sent to Newport News.  For at least a week, she’d complained of feeling sick, but the staff evidently ignored her symptoms and complaints.  Keffer had trouble walking, breathing, and eating.  She even vomited blood at one point.  Still, for some reason, the staff at the center did nothing for her, and she apparently languished for just over a week before someone finally did something.  It came out later that some staff members felt Raven was drug seeking, and that’s why they didn’t call for help.  

On June 29th, 2018, Keffer collapsed at Newport News Behavioral Health Center.  An ambulance was called, and Keffer was taken to Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital in Newport News.  It was there that she died a few hours later, officially at 10:33pm.  A staff member at the center mentioned to one of the first responders who had picked up Raven that she’d been sick all week and nothing had been done for her.

After I read about Raven in the Daily Press, I found a more detailed account on WAVY TV 10’s Web site.  That site was also blocked for me in Europe, but thanks to the VPN, I was able to hear her family members speak on video about what had happened.  To add insult to injury, Raven’s body was cremated about ten days after she’d died.  Her family was notified after the fact.

In October of 2018, investigators determined that staff members at Newport News Behavioral Health Center violated 13 state regulations in Raven Keffer’s case.  From the beginning, it appears that her even being at the center was inappropriate.  Raven Keffer had been recently hospitalized before she was admitted to the Newport News Behavioral Health Center and, according to its own admissions guidelines, Keffer should not have been admitted there.  The center’s admissions policy states that it doesn’t “accept patients who are addicted to drugs and need medical care for detoxing”.

Officially, Raven Keffer died of natural causes stemming from complications from lymphocytic adrenalitis, an auto-immune disorder that affects glands that produce adrenaline.  But she also had a serious heroin addiction that had required her to seek hospital care just prior to her admission to the center in Newport News.  Discharge instructions from the hospital where she’d been on June 13th indicated that she would need a follow up visit and perhaps surgery.  However, it’s clear that no one in Newport News did anything to arrange follow up care for Raven.  Her initial admissions paperwork was never even completed; there were several items left blank.

Video surveillance footage shows Raven being helped to see a nurse practitioner.  She had a registered nurse and a fellow patient supporting her, since she couldn’t walk unaided.  Once they reached the nurse practitioner’s office, the nurse walked away, leaving Raven to lean on the patient.  The nurse later left the unit and the other patient was shown on video dragging Raven across the room on a comforter.

In the wake of this fiasco, there’s been re-training at the center.  The nurse who abandoned Raven has been fired.  However, in November of 2018, the Newport News Behavioral Health Center was in the news again.  This time, it was because Child Protective Services in Newport News reported that a juvenile male at the facility was assaulted by a staff member.  The employee allegedly “punched the patient about the face, pushed him, and grabbed him”.  Other staff members tried to intervene and the patient was treated for injuries.  CPS noted that he had bruises on his face and marks on his neck and on an arm.

According to the news articles I’ve read, Paul Kirkham is the CEO of Newport News Behavioral Health Center.  I’m sure that his job isn’t easy, as teenagers in trouble are not an easy population.  However, if I were him, I’d be sweating bullets.  It really appears that extreme negligence is a problem at his facility.

Managed care is one reason why private psychiatric hospitals have gone down the tubes.  In the 80s, psychiatric medications were not as good as they are today.  Nowadays, many people who would have been hospitalized years ago can be treated outpatient.  You have to be pretty sick to wind up in a hospital, for any reason.  Managed care also pays less for fewer days.  But Charter’s woes also came about due to a public relations situation.  In 1999, an unflattering news report was aired regarding Charter’s business practices.  Terrance Johnson had a master’s degree in social work, but he took a job as a mental health technician.  While he was on the job, he wore a tiny camera, which recorded everything going on as he worked at his $8.35 per hour position.  People were paying thousands of dollars a day for “treatment”, but they were being watched over by “big guys”.  Really, being “big” was the number one qualification for the job.  Johnson’s size was more of a prerequisite for being a mental health technician than his MSW was.

I’m not sure if what Terrance Johnson encountered at a Charter hospital is still how these kinds of facilities are run.  I have read a few horror stories.  But it does sound like at least at one former Charter hospital, it’s business as usual.  My heart goes out to Raven Keffer’s family and anyone else who has suffered at one of these places.  And now that I have a VPN, I can read all about it.

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teen help, true crime

Repost: Creepy Christian caregivers from my hometown…

Yesterday, I read a news report out of the Salt Lake Tribune about the “teen help” industry, and how it’s burgeoning in Utah. One controversial facility that regularly comes up in Provo Canyon School, which Paris Hilton recently said she attended in the 1990s. I am currently reading a book by Cameron Douglas, son of actor, Michael Douglas, who also had experience with the school. Many “troubled kids” from around the country are sent to Utah to get “straightened out” by abusive schools, sometimes with disastrous results.

As I was reading, I was reminded of a “teen help” facility located very close to where I grew up. Many “troubled children” from around Virginia were sent there, and some suffered horrific abuse. I’m reposting my comments about that today, as/is. This post was originally composed October 26, 2017.

I’ve spent the past couple of hours digging up old news about churches in the county where I grew up.  Gloucester, Virginia was a pretty low key, rural kind of place back in the day, but there was the occasional scandal.  Today’s story has a long history that came to a head in the 1990s.  It’s a bit juicy and convoluted.

I moved to Gloucester County in June 1980.  I was eight years old.  That was the same year Hopesville Boys Ranch was closed, because new therapeutic methods were allowing families to keep their troubled kids at home instead of sending them to “homes” to live. 

Hopesville Boys Ranch was opened in 1967 by the late Reverend Frank Seal and his wife, Ruth.  Reverend Seal was a Methodist minister who had worked in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for years before he and his wife purchased 30 acres of land in Dutton, right on the border between Gloucester and Mathews counties.  When the ranch closed in 1980, it was later reopened as a Christian school, Hopesville Christian Academy. 

About thirty years ago, when I was about 14 or 15, I went through a brief phase when I rode my bike from Gloucester to Mathews just for kicks.  I’d go twenty or thirty miles just because I felt like it, which seems especially weird, since I had a horse at the time and probably should have been at the barn.  I remember riding through the small, rural community of Dutton and saw the signs for Hopesville Christian Academy.

I remember wondering what went on at the school.  I knew it was really tiny.  Even back in those days, religion kind of gave me the creeps.  I knew very little about the Christian school, only that it sat kind of eerily on the side of the road.  I didn’t know anyone who went there, though, and in time forgot about it.  The school closed at the end of the 1988-89 school year.  Other Christian schools had opened in the area, diminishing the need for Hopesville Christian Academy.  I graduated from Gloucester High School in 1990 and spent the next nine years moving back and forth to Gloucester. I went to college, served in the Peace Corps, and finally, in 1999, left for graduate school.  I have not lived in Gloucester since 1999 and have not visited since 2010.

Many years after I rode past it on my bike, I suddenly remembered that Christian school and home.  I didn’t remember the name of the place, but I remembered what it looked like and where it was.  I started obsessively digging and finally found some news reports about it reopening as a children’s home back in the early 1990s.  A 1994 news article reported that the facility had been reopened as a home for abused, abandoned, and neglected boys and girls. 

Frank Seal and his wife still ran Hopesville, although they also had help from two daughters, Joyce Clarke and Sheila Boettcher, and Boettcher’s husband, Gerald.  Gerald Boettcher had been in the Coast Guard and, I gather, had ties to nearby Milford Haven, a tiny Coast Guard station in Mathews, Virginia.  In all my years living in Gloucester, I don’t think I ever visited Milford Haven.  I doubt there was much to see there, anyway.

The facility, renamed Hopesville Ministries Children’s Home, was granted an initial permit that allowed them to accept six children.  Later, they were licensed for up to 36 children, and had community support in renovating the facilities to include two cottages, a gymnasium, and an office.  Sheila Boettcher had said that residents would be referred from across the state by the Division of Social Services and privately by parents and grandparents of children in dysfunctional home environments.  Eventually, there were also plans to reopen the Christian school, although the first residents would be attending Gloucester County public schools and getting therapy from local practitioners.  It all sounded so… “hopeful”.

Just five years later, in June of 1999, the director of the home, 46 year old Gerald Boettcher, was in the news.  Mr. Boettcher, who had left the Coast Guard and was also working as a contract driver delivering mail, had attempted suicide. 

Boettcher had been accused of committing sex crimes against two girls who had been living at the home between June 1, 1995 and June of 1999.  Aware that he was being investigated, Boettcher threatened to kill himself by placing a gun in his mouth. 

Boettcher was taken to Riverside Walter Reed Hospital in Gloucester, where he was later arrested.  For some reason, he was later taken to Central State Hospital, the state run psychiatric hospital in Petersburg, which is south of Richmond.  I would have expected him to go to Eastern State Hospital, in Williamsburg.  Williamsburg is closer to Gloucester than Petersburg is, but perhaps the state divides these cases by region.  I know Gloucester is often lumped in with Richmond, even though Richmond is not closer as the crow flies.

Boettcher was accused of forcible sodomy, sexual penetration and indecent liberties with both girls and, it seemed, more charges were likely.  At the time of Boettcher’s arrest, the victims were 16 and 17 years old.  The Division of Social Services took the six children who were at the home and sent them back to their parents and/or relatives.  None of the children were from Gloucester; apparently, the local social services agency had never referred anyone to that facility. 

Interestingly enough, I was living in Gloucester at that time, but I don’t remember this story in the news.  Back then, I read the newspaper every day.

In December of 1999, Boettcher pleaded guilty to five sex charges, bringing his grand total of guilty pleas to eight.  His mother-in-law, Ruth Seal, and the rest of his family and friends reportedly “seemed stunned and angry” at the outcome of the trial.  They repeatedly said that he didn’t do it.  Ruth Seal was upset that she didn’t get to testify.  Boettcher’s wife, Sheila Boettcher, told the mother of one of the victims that she hoped she “rotted in Hell.” 

Despite his family’s outrage and horror, it does appear that the evidence against Boettcher was overwhelming.  Boettcher admitted to both a Gloucester County Sheriff’s Office investigator and a hospital crisis worker that he had been having sexual contact with the girls.  Additionally, a computer forensics analyst had hacked into Boettcher’s computer and found documents for the “Golden Hearts Club”.  One of the victims, then sixteen, also testified that Boettcher had her stand naked and recite vows to enter the Golden Hearts Club.  He had evidently told her that she “had qualities he hadn’t seen in anybody in a long time.”  The victim said she had moved to Hopesville when she was fourteen and Boettcher had started having sexual intercourse with her two months later.  The offenses took place at the home, in Boettcher’s vehicles, and at a construction site where Boettcher and his wife were building a home.

Boettcher was finally caught when another resident saw him kissing the girl intimately.  The resident told a housemother, who then contacted social services.  At that point, local law enforcement became involved.

Boettcher faced up to 45 years in prison for his crimes.  In Mach 2000, he was sentenced to 19 years, with ten suspended.  I see Boettcher was defended by Michael Soberick.  I remember in the late 1980s, Mr. Soberick ran for public office in Gloucester.  I only remember that because I was taking a high school journalism course at the time and, as part of that course, attended a question and answer session he gave.  I remember it being boring, except that there was a guy in my class there upon whom I had a massive crush.  My dad had taken me to the session, which was held at Rappahannock Community College.  My dad said my crush looked like a “wimp”.  Good thing I ended up with Bill, who did meet with my dad’s approval.     

I see Boettcher is now listed as a registered sex offender and apparently lives in Dutton.  His neighbors evidently aren’t too pleased, although he has apparently not caused any problems since he got out of prison.  I also found the Hopesville property listed for sale, although there appears to be a discrepancy in the years reported when the buildings were erected.  Frank Seal, who founded Hopesville in its many incarnations, died in 2003.

It’s amazing what a long memory, a little morbid curiosity, and a lot of nosey proclivities will get you.  Incidentally, this is certainly not the first time a trusted man from the area where I grew up turned out to be a pervert.  In 2008, there was a huge scandal in nearby Middlesex County when it turned out that the recently retired social worker, Arthur Bracke, had been molesting boys in his care for years.  I have written about Mr. Bracke, now mercifully deceased, several times.  Although I would be the first to say that men are often unfairly accused of being monsters, the evidence is clear that sometimes the ones we trust the most turn out to be total creeps.  It also drives home the fact that kids who go to foster care sometimes wind up in situations as bad or worse than the ones they’ve escaped.

I don’t know much about the late Reverend Frank Seal, but it does sound like he was probably a good man who had good intentions when he started his boys’ home and Christian school.  I’m sure this whole catastrophe was awful for him and his family.  In more than one article about his school/home, he is quoted as saying “It has been my life…  Jesus said, `Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ I’ve tried to live up to that.”  

There were even some people testifying in favor of Mr. Boettcher, who, like many sex offenders, wasn’t a complete monster.  Of course, they almost never are “complete monsters”.  If they were monsters, they would have a much harder time getting access to their victims.  But anyway, I do remember Hopesville Christian Academy and how creepy it seemed as I passed it on my bike thirty years ago.  I guess my intuition was dead on again. 

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