In 2017, a licensed youth residential facility in Bolivar called Home Court Advantage made the headlines when a video surfaced showing a staff member allegedly beating a student the previous year.
It drew the attention of state officials, who had been made aware of the video through a report to the Missouri child abuse and neglect hotline. As a result, admission was voluntarily suspended at the facility, according to a memo from the Children’s Division at the end of January 2017.
A little over a month later, the facility’s state representative – Republican Representative Mike Stephens from Bolivar – hosted a conference call with the deputy director of the DSS Children’s Division about establishment.
Over the next year, Stephens was joined by Republican Senator Sandy Crawford of Buffalo, whose legislative district also includes Home Court Advantage, in meetings with state regulators about the facility.
The meeting notices were provided by Stephens’ office as part of a request for records opened through Missouri’s Sunshine Act. Yet despite receiving a request for similar documents, Crawford did not disclose them.
And that wasn’t the only gap.
Crawford has been included in email exchanges with Stephanie Householder, owner of the Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in southwest Missouri who, along with her husband, faces nearly 100 felony charges of child abuse and neglect.
Stephens returned those emails, but Crawford didn’t.
Kansas City Star reported on Saturday that communications with the head of household were also not provided in response to the journal’s application for registration filed with the Crawford office in April.
Stephens and Crawford both received an invitation in October 2019 for an event for the Good Samaritan Boys Ranch, another licensed youth residential facility. The emailed invitation was not included in the records produced by Crawford’s office.
The requests for the files were submitted in April to Stephens and Crawford by Parliamentary Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. the documents have since been provided to the House Special Committee on Government Oversight, which is investigating the state’s response to reports of abuse at Missouri residential schools.
“A review of the requested search terms, including clarifications provided to Senator Crawford’s office, indicates that these documents should be included in search terms submitted to the office,” read a note from Quade’s office to members. of the committee. “The reason for their unavailability in the batch produced by Senator Crawford’s office is unknown.”
Crawford, who produced tapes dating back to 2013, said in an email to The Independent that she had provided “all responsive tapes kept by my office” to Quade in response to her request.
But lawmakers who have looked at the emails in question say the lack of disclosure is troubling.
“It really raises eyebrows,” said Representative Raychel Proudie, a Ferguson Democrat and a senior minority member on the House special committee on government oversight.
Not to receive full information is “a huge red flag,” Quade said.
Rep. Scott Cupps, a Republican from Shell Knob who also sits on the oversight committee, said he did not review the emails last week. But he said the lack of disclosure did not concern him, as the senator’s search may simply have missed relevant emails.
Patrick Baker, administrator of the Missouri Senate, said that while the Senate has its own guidelines for record retention, each senator sets their own retention policy and serves as the record keeper for their office.
A copy of the Sunshine Law policy for Crawford’s office that was provided to The Independent consists of three short paragraphs. He notes that Crawford serves as the custodian of his office’s records, must comply with the Sunshine Act, and may charge fees in accordance with it.
Since the passage in 2018 of Amendment 1, a constitutional amendment more commonly known as “Clean Missouri,” emails from lawmakers are now explicitly subject to the state’s Open Records Act. Previously, some legislators considered themselves exempt.
His passage is even referenced in Crawford’s electronic signature, which indicates that any communication or document received by his office may be subject to public disclosure under the Sunshine Act.
Home field advantage
Emails produced by Stephens’ office in response to Quade’s request show that since May 2018, Householder has kept Stephens and Crawford informed of local law enforcement and child protection services investigations, relayed allegations of abuse and shared positive testimonials from students and parents.
In response, Stephens offered the help of the two lawmakers and said he was following the household matter through their lawyers at the time, The Independent previously reported.
Emails from his office also showed that Stephens and Crawford had met with senior DSS officials about Home Court Advantage, whose facilities are contracted with the State provide residential treatment to boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 21, including those with psychiatric and behavioral problems.
According to a DSS list provided to the Special Committee on Government Oversight in the last session, two of the Home Court Advantages locations had five compelling evidence findings between 2015 and 2020 – three for neglect and two for physical abuse.
Jack McCrimmon, owner of Home Court Advantage, said he remembered three incidents, but not five.
The DSS declined to provide further information to The Independent regarding the preponderance of the findings of the evidence, including the specific dates on which they occurred and their results, noting state law allows only limited disclosure Central Register reports.
The first notice of meeting included in response to the recording request concerns a conference call for March 8, 2017 – just over a month after admission to the facility was suspended following the video that was released. triggered an investigation by state officials. It was sent by Susan Savage, the deputy director of the children’s division of DSS, to Stephens.
Before May 25, 2017, catches were allowed to resume in the establishment after the lifting of the voluntary suspension.
The following year, there was a subsequent meeting on March 16, 2018, between Crawford, Stephens and then DSS Deputy Director Jennifer Tidball – this time at Home Court Advantage, where other DSS officials and from the Ministry of Mental Health joined.
“We hope to fully restore our relationship with the agencies,” Stephens said at the time, according to the press without Bolivar Herald. “We went through a traumatic time last year. … We wanted you to develop a higher level of comfort with what we have done.
A month and a half later, a meeting regarding Home Court Advantage was to take place in the Capitol office in Crawford between then DSS Director Steve Corsi, Deputy Director of the Children’s Division Julie Lester and Director of legislative and constituent services Caitlin Whaley. Stephens’ legislative assistant at the time was also on the meeting notice.
Most recently, in June 2020, DSS officials exchanged emails between Stephens and McCrimmon to find a time to meet with a licensing consultant.
From the 2016 incident depicted in the video, two facility staff were ultimately sentenced to two years probation, ordered to pay $ 300 to a county law enforcement restitution fund, and to perform community service after pleading guilty to third degree assault and failure to report child abuse. as appointed rapporteur, according to the Bolivar Herald Free-Press.
A civil action against the establishment was also dismissed in 2019 after a settlement was reached.
In an interview, McCrimmon said he has since implemented more frequent training for staff, and said Stephens and Crawford have been a supporting presence over the years.
“I can only speak for Home Court,” he said, “I love having these guys in my corner.”
Crawford did not respond to a previous request for comment regarding Home Court Advantage. McCrimmon said Stephens sits on the Home Court Advantage board, and Stephens said he first got to know the establishment through his pharmacy business. Stephens said he helped meet with regulators to make sure things at the facility were improving and said staff involved in the 2017 incident “were completely irrelevant.”
“It seems I have been in the midst of an unusually high number of these cases,” Stephens said previously in an interview with The Independent, later adding: “I have a big heart for them, and for the hardships. they endure to try to take care of these people, and seeing them under a bureaucratic weapon, I tend to back down.