The owners of a religious boarding school in southwestern Missouri have been arrested on dozens of abuse charges, following an investigation prompted by alumnae who spoke out on TikTok.
Boyd and Stephanie Householder, the owners and operators of Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, were taken into custody Tuesday after the Missouri Attorney General’s office filed a litany of charges.
Court records show Boyd Householder, 71, faces 79 felony counts and one misdemeanor, including charges for child molestation, sodomy, sexual contact with a student and neglect of a child. Stephanie Householder, 55, faces 22 felony charges for abuse or neglect of a child, and endangering the welfare of a child. The alleged incidents occurred from 2017 to 2020.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt told reporters at a news conference Wednesday his office has identified 16 victims “so far,” and that he considers this to be “one of the most widespread cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse patterns against young girls and women in Missouri history.”
“There are no words I can say today to describe the mix of great sadness, horror, disgust and sympathy that I feel about these reports of cruel and almost unbelievable reports of abuse and neglect,” Schmitt said.
The Householders were being held in Vernon County Jail, Cedar County Sheriff James McCrary said. They were scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday afternoon.
An attorney who has represented the Householders in civil lawsuits said he will not be representing them in the criminal cases. It was unclear Wednesday if the Householders had a defense lawyer. Stephanie Householder previously told NBC News that she and her husband deny all allegations against them.
Boyd Householder opened Circle of Hope in 2006 as a school that he claimed could reform rebellious teenage girls. Two dozen former residents previously told NBC News and “Dateline” that Boyd and Stephanie used cruel punishments against girls at the ranch, including withholding food, forcing them to perform manual labor and restraining girls face down for as long as an hour.
Schmitt said witnesses told investigators that the Householders restrained girls with handcuffs and zipties, and stuffed dirty socks in their mouths. One girl said Boyd pushed her down the stairs, and another said he advised her on how to kill herself, according to Schmitt.
Charging documents allege that Boyd slammed two girls’ heads against a wall, kept another girl in a room with no light or sound for “an extended period of time on multiple occasions,” poured hot sauce into a girl’s mouth and used duct tape and socks to prevent a girl from using her hands for “several days.” Stephanie’s charges largely stem from allegations that she assisted Boyd in dangerous restraints and allowed him to continue to interact with the girls after assaulting them, according to charging documents.
Since the boarding school opened, concerned parents, staff members and others had reported Circle of Hope at least 19 times to three sheriff’s departments, state child welfare and education officials, the highway patrol, and the state attorney general’s office, according to interviews and records obtained by NBC News.
However, these complaints did not result in charges. An assistant U.S. attorney declined to prosecute in 2018, according to an email from a highway patrol officer who investigated Circle of Hope. And state child welfare and education officials had no authority to close the ranch, a loophole that a bipartisan bill pending in the Missouri Legislature aims to close.
The wave of state action began after the Householders’ daughter, Amanda, and women who attended Circle of Hope as teenagers started to post videos on TikTok last spring alleging abuse at the ranch. The videos prompted the Cedar County Sheriff’s Office to investigate, the office confirmed.
Last summer, about two dozen girls still enrolled in Circle of Hope were removed by state officials as more people came forward with abuse allegations. The Householders voluntarily closed Circle of Hope in August and put the property up for sale.
Schmitt’s office joined the investigation in November, after Cedar County prosecutor Ty Gaither requested assistance.
Amanda Householder said in a TikTok posted Wednesday morning she never thought her parents would be held accountable.
“This is a moment that does deserve to be celebrated,” she said, reacting to news of her parents’ arrests. “I am sad because they are my parents, but something my parents would always tell me is, ‘You made your bed, now you have to lie in it.’ Well, my parents made their bed and now they’re going to have to lie in it. As hard as that is for me, it’s about time.”
CORRECTION (March 10, 2021, 12:57 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated how many felony charges Boyd Householder faces. It is 79 (and one misdemeanor count), not 80.