Circle of Hope Shut Down
Circle of Hope Girls' Ranch opened in July 2006. The owner of the ranch, Boyd Householder, is a Vietnam War veteran who had previously worked at reform schools in Missouri and Florida, including the Agape Boarding School, which is currently under investigation by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Religious teaching through the Bible was a core part of the program; their website stated that their purpose was to "use the Bible to teach [young women] that they are to obey their parents and the authority over them". Residents spent much of their day doing manual labor, such as working outside and cleaning the house. Their clothes were allowed to be changed twice a week. Educational material consisted of packets from the home-school provider Accelerated Christian Education. The educational aspect of the program often did not count towards credits in other school districts. Residents were required to stay at the ranch for at least 2 years. The program permitted 15-minute calls and letters with parents; however, former residents stated that communication was heavily censored.
Allegations of abuse at the ranch were first made known about a year after it opened in 2006. Parents, former students, and staff filed multiple reports to state authorities, but to no avail. Federal prosecutors refused to file charges after a 2018 report by the Missouri State Highway Patrol regarding child abuse at the ranch, and prosecutors in Missouri also refused to file charges after another report the year before. Former students have alleged that their experiences with the ranch were ignored by Missouri's Department of Social Services. The ranch evaded detection by authorities due to a law that protected faith-based schools from the requirement of basic oversight.
Starting in 2020, the ranch started to gain wider media attention, due to former residents using social media to talk about their experiences at the ranch. Among those who spoke out against the ranch is Amanda Householder, the daughter of Boyd and Stephanie Householder, who are the owners of the ranch. She subsequently went viral on TikTok for sharing her and other people's experiences while attending the ranch.
Investigations were also launched by the Kansas City Star and the Cedar County Republican, both local newspapers in Missouri.
Multiple lawsuits were filed against the ranch in September 2020 by former residents. These residents alleged, among other things, that they had been raped, molested, denied food and water, handcuffed, chained, and forced to stand in front of a wall for hours on end.
In July 2021, four of these lawsuits were settled. The amounts that the plaintiffs settled for are reportedly confidential.
"At least 24" students were removed by local child protective services in August 2020 as part of an investigation involving several state agencies, including the Cedar County Sheriff's Department. In September 2020, Boyd Householder stated to the Kansas City Star that the ranch was "closed for good" and stated that he and his wife Stephanie were going to try and "vindicate themselves". The properties that were part of the ranch were put up for sale the same month.
The Householders have denied ever abusing a student. They have stated that the allegations against them are false and that they were created by former residents "whose lives didn't turn out the way they wanted after they left the ranch". The Householders' attorney, Jay Kirksey, stated to the Cedar County Republican that the allegations were from "young women who have troubled pasts, who have biases [and] prejudices [and] who have no credibility".
In 2021, representatives Rudy Veit and Keri Ingle introduced Missouri House bills 557 and 560, which requires private faith-based facilities and schools to have basic oversight. The bill also requires employees to have background checks, regular inspections for health and safety, and requires schools to notify authorities that it is operating in the state. Testimony about the bill was heard in February and April 2021. Among the speakers were former residents of the ranch. The bill passed unanimously in the House and in the Missouri Senate.
In February 2021, the ranch was covered on the Dateline NBC episode "Broken Circle".
On March 9, 2021, Boyd and Stephanie Householder were taken into state custody. The Missouri Attorney General's office announced that Boyd is being charged with 79 felony counts and 1 misdemeanor, including charges for child molestation and sodomy. Stephanie was also charged with 22 felony counts: all for child abuse and neglect. They plead not guilty during their first court appearance. Eric S. Schmitt, Missouri's Attorney General, stated that the Circle of Hope case is “one of the most widespread cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse patterns against young girls and women in Missouri history”. The Householders maintain their innocence, and their defense attorney Adam Woody petitioned for them to be released on bond, stating that they are "very good people ... [with] outstanding reputations and spotless records". On June 14, 2021, judge David R. Munton denied their initial bond request. Their bond hearing was held in the Vernon County Circuit Court in Nevada (a city in Missouri; no relation to the state of Nevada), as the Householders moved after the closure of Circle of Hope. They are now out on a $10,000 bond and sentenced to home confinement, after Boyd Householder reportedly stated that he had contracted COVID-19, and that Stephanie Householder had blood clots in her right foot. Former residents expressed disgust at the decision; the Householders' daughter Amanda stated that it made her "sick to [her] stomach".
A local pastor, Jerry Pyle of the Bible Baptist Church, requested donations for the Householders' legal defense, stating that the charges brought against the couple were 'false, demonic accusations'. Pyle later retracted his request, stating that it was 'completely improper'.
The Householders faced a judge for a preliminary hearing on May 20, 2021. During the hearing, prosecutors shared details from their interviews with former residents.