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 The school’s official Web site is now defunct, but you can access an archived version of it here.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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disasters, dogs

Empty Garden…

In the early 80s, Elton John had a hit song called “Empty Garden (Hey, Hey Johnny). It was a song written in honor of John Lennon, Elton’s friend and fellow rock star, who was murdered by a deranged fan in New York City in December 1980. I’ve always appreciated that song for its beautiful melody and poignant lyrics. They spring to mind this morning as I consider the events of the past 36 hours or so…

I had been pining for another dog since we lost Zane in August of last year. Many people who know Bill and me, know that our dogs are our lives. We’ve successfully adopted five beagles/mixes so far and all of them have been special to us. We are usually quick to adopt again when we lose one. We figure it’s the right thing to do, since we there are so many animals that need good homes and we’re willing and able. But this time, we put off trying to adopt because of all the horror stories we’d heard about Germans not wanting to adopt to Americans. We had some travel planned, and wanted to wait until we’d both be home to break in a new dog. Also, we worried about how Arran would handle being a “big brother”. He’s a wonderful, sweet, devoted companion, but he gets jealous.

Nevertheless, last month, the time seemed right to take in our sixth rescue, even not taking into consideration that, because of the coronavirus, we’d be housebound anyway. I also have a very persistent local friend who’s been sending me pictures of prospective rescues for months.

I was especially attracted to “Jonny”, a beagle mix from Sardinia who had once belonged to a hunter. We sent in an application for him late last month, just before he was moved from Sardinia to Hamburg, arriving February 29th. But we had to have a home visit and interview before we could get him, and Bill had to go to the USA on business until March 10th. We couldn’t have our home visit until last Sunday. It went very well, though, and the lady who interviewed us had no qualms about approving us. She made a special point of telling us about the harness and collar combination so important for rescue dogs who are scared and unfamiliar with their new homes.

Wednesday night, we were formally approved to adopt Jonny. Originally, our plan was to drive to Hamburg on Saturday and pick him up. Because of the coronavirus, traveling has become more complicated. We realized we might not be able to find a hotel because so many are not accepting guests due to the “plague”. So we figured we’d bite the bullet and drive to Hamburg early in the morning and bring him back home that evening.

At any other time, our plan would have gone off without a hitch. But coronavirus has really made arranging travel more difficult. Then, on Thursday, a couple of workers in Bill’s office came up positive for COVID-19. Consequently, everyone in our local military community has been asked to stay in town and avoid any unnecessary travel. Bill called the rescue Thursday night to see if we could arrange alternate plans for picking up Jonny. He asked if we could pay the adoption fee and provide financial support for Jonny and have the foster mom hang onto him until we could travel to Hamburg to get him. The coordinator told Bill that we must arrange to take him immediately or lose out, because travel was being shut down in the Hamburg area and there were local people who had asked about him.

It was looking doubtful that we’d be able to adopt the dog and Bill was about to say we’d just wait until a more convenient time, but then the coordinator suggested that we pay for a pet taxi to Wiesbaden. The dog would arrive at our home between 6:00am and 7:00am Friday morning. We’d just pay 160 euros for the transportation. But we also had to sign the contract and pay another 380 euros for the adoption fee. We don’t have a printer or a scanner anymore, because every time we’ve had one, its use has been short lived. I used printers all the time when I was in graduate school, but now that I’m out of school, they end up being wasted space in short order. So that was another problem that made the adoption look like it couldn’t happen.

Fortunately, our landlord likes dogs and is very open to letting us get a new one. Bill asked him if he’d mind printing the contract, letting Bill sign it, scanning it, and sending it back to the rescue. The landlord obliged; the contract was signed; the fees were paid, and we spent all Friday morning eagerly awaiting Jonny’s arrival.

Sure enough, a “pet taxi” arrived at our home yesterday at 7:00am. The driver had called us an hour earlier. She’d been bright and cheery and she spoke excellent English. We spent the last hour excited about meeting our new family member. When we spotted her pulling in next to our driveway, Bill went out to greet her. He’d even bought a couple of croissants for her because he knew she’d been driving all night.

Bill stood at the back of the pet taxi as the transporter emerged to get Jonny out of the back. She took him from his crate and set him down on the ground. For some reason, he was not wearing a harness (she said it was too small for him), and the collar he was wearing was too big for him. The transporter said it was her collar, and claimed she was not given a harness or a collar by Jonny’s foster mom; consequently, it didn’t fit him properly. When Jonny’s paws touched the ground, he suddenly backpedaled and slipped out of the collar, bolting from our neighborhood. Neither of us so much as had a chance to pet Jonny before he was gone. I only got the slightest glimpse of him.

Bill and the transporter set off on foot to try to catch him, but he was too far gone. A few drivers pointed in the direction of Wallau, which is a village not far from us. Bill and the transporter got in her taxi and went looking for him, but it was a futile effort. They came back without the dog. Bill was in tears. But he still paid the transporter and gave her the croissants.

The German search organization, Tasso, made us a flyer.

I spent all day joining Facebook groups and posting pictures of Jonny. We called the police station, where someone had reported seeing the dog in Wallau. I left messages at the fire stations in two villages, and we called our vet. I posted in Toytown Germany, and got a lot of suggestions for groups to post in. One lady even called me and offered suggestions, even offering to call around on our behalf, since our German isn’t so good.

Meanwhile, while this was going on, Bill was having to work from home. He spent his lunch hour searching for Jonny, with no luck. Then he was summoned to his workplace because the commander had ordered that everyone in his office get tested for COVID-19. Bill went in to get swabbed and came home with a face mask. He has been ordered to quarantine until the test results come back, so he’s not allowed to leave the house. That means I probably shouldn’t leave the house, either.

We did have a couple of stupid and thoughtless comments from people. Two people assumed we’d been scammed. They thought we’d paid for a non-existent dog, which is an unfortunate crime in Europe. Fortunately, I was able to set them straight very quickly. I got a few comments from people chastising us for not having the dog in a harness or a crate. We’d stupidly assumed a professional pet driver would know what she was doing and we hadn’t been involved in outfitting Jonny for the trip. However, we definitely learned a lesson about securing new dogs, thanks to Jonny’s escape. I did get one comment from someone who said maybe Jonny wasn’t meant to be our dog. That thought has crossed my mind, although it surprises me that someone would say that to me. It makes me feel like shit and isn’t helpful.

Many people suggested using tracking dogs to find him, but as he’s never been in our house and we’ve never so much as petted him, that didn’t seem to be the best solution. Jonny’s foster mom came all the way to Wiesbaden with her daughter and their dog. Jonny loves kids and they do have things with his scent on it. I was gratified that they’d made that effort, and suddenly began to think that the foster mom wasn’t the one who hadn’t properly secured Jonny for his new home. We did tell the rescue what happened with the transporter and her services with them have now been terminated. She also paid Bill back for the transport fee. Oddly enough, I don’t feel that angry with her. I know she didn’t mean any harm; she was simply careless. Hopefully, she will learn a valuable lesson.

All day, I got private messages from Germans all around the communities. Most of the advice was genuinely helpful under normal circumstances; but again, he’s only technically our dog at this point. We haven’t bonded with him yet, because we’ve never touched him or looked him in the eyes. He doesn’t yet associate us with home or family. I still have hope we’ll someday have that connection, although the longer he’s gone, the more I worry that he’s gone forever.

Nevertheless, the pictures and posts were shared repeatedly in many groups. Last night, several people said they’d heard barking in a forest near a riding school about four kilometers from us. It was dark outside, though, so no one was ever able to find the source of the barking. Hopefully, it’s Jonny, and we’ll be able to recover him sometime soon. He’s overweight and he’s a beagle, so he’ll no doubt be ready to eat and sleep in a comfortable bed soon.

I’m trying to stay optimistic. I do have a feeling that we’ll get him back. But I’m also a pessimist by nature, so I can’t fully let myself go there yet. This is an absolutely nutty situation made all the more complicated by the pandemic, since we can’t even go looking for him ourselves. I was planning to write a fun story about how we made the adoption happen. It didn’t occur to me that we wouldn’t even get to pet our new dog before he ran away from us.

I’m still very moved by the response of the community. Germans really love their dogs, and they are overall helpful, kind, people, if not a bit harsh at times. I have faith that we’ll have Jonny back in his garden, soon… with a LoJack on his collar. If not… I think it’ll probably be a long time before we try to adopt again. I don’t think my heart can take another loss so soon.

Update: Jonny was found dead. He was hit by a car.

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