Amanda Householder received an urgent Facebook message in early March about her dad from a man she hadn’t talked to in years.
Her father, Boyd Householder, ran a religious boarding school in rural Missouri called Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch that aimed to “help young ladies” stop making poor choices. And the man who messaged her, Joseph Askins, who had viewed Boyd as a friend and mentor, was disturbed by what he had seen on a recent visit.
At the ranch, Askins later told NBC News, he saw Boyd smack a child in the mouth and force a girl to chug water and then drink her own vomit. Askins said he heard Boyd order teenage girls to assault one another. “Knock her out, I mean it,” the voice of a man — whom Amanda, Askins and others identified as Boyd — is heard saying in a video Askins captured.
The video disturbed Amanda, 29, but it was far from the first time people had raised concerns about what was happening at her parents’ ranch.
Since Circle of Hope opened in 2006, at least 15 people said they reported abuse at the ranch to at least six local, state and federal agencies in Missouri, an NBC News investigation found, based on a review of court records, text messages and emails and interviews with 15 former residents, seven parents and two former staff members.
Parents and former residents said they reported that Boyd used physical restraints as punishments, placing girls face down for as long as an hour, while he pressed a knee into their necks and other residents were forced to squeeze the target’s pressure points. Boyd, 71, and his wife, Stephanie, 55, withheld food as punishment or if they thought a girl was overweight, and forced children to stand and stare at a wall for hours at a time for days in a row if they didn’t follow the ever-changing rules, the parents and former residents said.
Yet despite these complaints, the boarding school continued to operate.
Circle of Hope is part of a national landscape of institutions referred to as the troubled teen industry, which has received increased attention since celebrity Paris Hilton began talking about her time at one such facility. Parents place their children in these programs hoping to correct behaviors ranging from talking back and skipping school to drug abuse.
But in many states, the industry has little to no regulation. No state agency in Missouri licensed or accredited Circle of Hope, and former residents and parents believe that’s partly why the abuse went unchecked at the ranch for more than a decade.
Cedar County Sheriff James McCrary said his office had received multiple calls about Circle of Hope over the years; he declined to go into details but said that since he became sheriff in 2017, he made sure his staff investigated every complaint. A sheriff’s deputy told Amanda in a Facebook message this year that they had not had enough evidence. A federal prosecutor had turned down the case in 2019, a state highway patrol sergeant told Amanda in an email. The state’s education department told a parent in 2008 that it had no authority over the ranch because it operated as a private boarding school.
And although the Missouri Department of Social Services determined in a preliminary finding two years ago that Boyd physically abused a minor, according to court documents — a finding Boyd disputed; the case is still pending — the agency said it didn’t have power to force the ranch to close because it did not have licensing authority.
Amanda had been uneasy about what she said she’d witnessed at her parents’ ranch for years. After seeing the video from Askins, she decided to start talking publicly.
“I told everyone, ‘I can’t be silent anymore,’” Amanda said. “No one can deny us, no one can tell us it wasn't true anymore.”
Amanda set up a TikTok account in May carrying the bio: “My parents own an abusive boarding school for girls. This is my page exposing it.” Videos by Amanda and former residents describing abuse at the ranch amassed more than 33 million views — and finally prompted action.
The Cedar County Sheriff’s Department and the state Department of Social Services opened an investigation, which is ongoing, and in August the state removed two dozen girls from the ranch, effectively closing it. The Householders decided this month not to reopen their school rather than deal with the government.
On Wednesday, two former residents, both anonymous, filed lawsuits against the Householders: One accused Boyd of raping her as a minor multiple times in 2015 and said that Stephanie was aware of the abuse and did nothing to stop it. The other alleges that Boyd threw her into a wall and to the ground, and the Householders fed her so little that she lost 40 pounds in two months when she was placed there in 2014. The suits did not state whether the alleged abuse had been reported to state or local authorities.
In an email, Stephanie denied the allegations of abuse, which she said came from “a few girls [who] have no credibility.”
“It is a fact that the accusations will not withstand the scrutiny of examination and the testimony of others as to the truth,” Stephanie said in an email. She said she and her husband would not discuss the allegations further.
Jay Kirksey, a lawyer for the Householders, did not respond to requests for comment.
For the ranch’s former residents and their parents, the state’s action is gratifying, but they argued it shouldn't have taken viral TikTok videos to reach this point.
Teresa Tucker said when she tried to report that her 15-year-old daughter, Ashley, was restrained and fed nothing but soup at Circle of Hope in 2015, the social services department claimed there was little it could do since the ranch was classified as a private religious school.
“I don’t care what kind of laws they fall under,” Tucker said. “What they’re doing is wrong — it’s abuse.”
The state’s social services department said that it could not comment on individual cases but that it “continues to fulfill its role and work with child welfare community partners to keep children in Missouri safe,” and that it responds to all hotline reports of child abuse and neglect. The department also noted that allegations are “often co-investigated with local law enforcement.”
Ty Gaither, the Cedar County prosecutor, said that various agencies in Missouri had been trying to look into Circle of Hope for two years, “but that investigation has run into some difficulty due to not being able to have full contact with those girls.”
'They were afraid we'd tell the truth'
The Householders opened Circle of Hope in July 2006 after Boyd, a Vietnam veteran, worked at similar reform schools in Missouri and Florida. They set up shop on a 35-acre property outside of Humansville, a town of about 1,000 residents in western Missouri. A long driveway led up to a two-story, four-bedroom house that former residents remember had an industrial kitchen and flat office carpeting, and the Householders lived in a house across the street. They welcomed girls as young as 6 years old, according to a news report.
Girls spent most of their days working outside, tending to chickens, dogs and horses, and cleaning the house. Twice a week, they were allowed to change their clothes, which were all donated, according to four parents and three former residents. Boyd punished girls if they took more than five minutes to take a shower, including undressing and shaving, seven former residents said. Education consisted of Christian homeschooling packets from Accelerated Christian Education, and often did not count toward high school credits in public school districts, several parents and residents said.
The ranch averaged 20 to 30 youth at a time, collecting $284,430 in tuition last year, tax returns show. Tuition fluctuated; one parent said she paid $300 a month, while three others said it cost over $1,000. Circle of Hope never had more than a handful of staff, who received very little pay. Aimee Groves, who said she worked there in 2009, said she didn’t receive any wages, just room and board and some clothing. Adria Keim, who said she worked there from 2009 to 2011, said she was paid $350 a month. Last year, the school spent $51,375 on staff salaries, with $13,495 going to Boyd, according to a tax return.
Boyd, who had girls call him “Brother House,” required children to stay for at least two years, and said he would determine if they were ready to go home, according to former residents and a copy of the parent handbook shared with NBC News.
“He made it sound like it was a place for praising God,” said Chanel Mare, who was at Circle of Hope from 2006, when she was 14, until she ran away in 2010. “But it wasn’t, really, it was about praising him.”
During Blaze Lutwinksy’s first night at the ranch in 2011, she said, a medical condition caused her to vomit a bologna sandwich Boyd and Stephanie ordered her to eat.
“I ate the bologna, I threw up, immediately I was restrained in my own vomit,” Lutwinksy, who was 16 at the time, said. “He told me I better get used to following rules or this was going to be my life.”
The Householders permitted residents to call their parents once every other week for 15 minutes on speakerphone. If girls said they wanted to come home or complained about their treatment at the ranch, 17 former residents and staff members said, the Householders would end the call immediately. Letters home were also censored by Boyd, they said.
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Dajah Potter, 20, said social services employees came to the ranch four times when she was there from 2016 through 2018. If they came when the girls were outside, she said, the Householders would instruct everyone to come inside and into a secluded room to keep them out of sight of the social workers.
“They were afraid we’d tell the truth, which is me being abused,” Potter said. She said Boyd once sprayed her with a hose outside in the winter because he thought she was faking being sick.
Stephanie said there are witnesses who can refute the abuse allegations, but declined to share their names.
“There are hundreds of girls who have been helped and chosen to make better decisions and become better persons in society,” Stephanie said in an email. “Unfortunately, there are a few girls who choose to continue their past acts and some are now making false accusations.”
Complaints started the year the ranch opened
Amanda Householder’s relationship with her parents deteriorated as she got older. As a teenager, she often filled in as a staff member, but she said her parents also placed her in the program as a punishment. She said the extent of her bad behavior “consisted of thinking boys were cute and listening to Green Day.” She moved in with other family members in 2009, at 17, and the next year moved to California.
For the first few years on her own, Amanda pushed back on many of the stories from former residents. She antagonized them on internet forums when they spoke negatively about Circle of Hope. But after having a child, and once she began talking directly with former residents, she began to reevaluate. She said she noticed their stories lined up. Amanda apologized for not believing them earlier, and for not intervening when she still lived at the ranch.
“I knew the restraining was bad,” said Amanda, who is now a stay-at-home mom, “but I just kick myself in the ass for not standing up against it back then. I felt guilty, I felt like it was my fault, but that’s one of the things I worked through in therapy. I had to get over that.”
In 2018, Amanda connected with Michelle Nickerson, who had been trying to report concerns about Circle of Hope to the Missouri Department of Social Services because her 16-year-old sister was at the ranch. Nickerson had been in touch with the Missouri Highway Patrol, and together, they began referring former residents to speak with the officers.
The state highway patrol gave a report on its Circle of Hope investigation to an assistant U.S. attorney, who declined last year to prosecute, according to an email from the sergeant who handled the investigation. The highway patrol refused to release a copy of the report because it’s being used in the current investigation, and the sergeant declined to comment to avoid interfering with it. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office also declined to comment.
Complaints about Circle of Hope date back to the year it opened.
Genevieve Dean said she called the sheriff’s department and social services in 2006 and asked them to perform a welfare check at the ranch because she worried her 15-year-old daughter, Amanda, was being abused. In a letter home, Amanda had included a secret safe word she had with her mother to signal someone was hurting her. Amanda said in an interview she was only fed quarter portions of meals, her medication was withheld and she saw Boyd smack girls. Both the sheriff’s department and social services declined to conduct a welfare check, Dean said, and she pulled her daughter out of Circle of Hope.
The following year, in 2007, Donna Maddox said she pulled her daughter, Kelsey, then 14, out of the ranch after her first visit, when she saw bruises on her that Kelsey said came from restraints. Maddox said she reported the school to several state agencies, including a consumer complaint to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office because Circle of Hope had falsely claimed to be registered with the state’s education department.
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office said it received three consumer complaints regarding Circle of Hope, and each one had been “referred to the local prosecutor or proper authority.” The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it received three complaints about Circle of Hope since 2008, but has no oversight of private schools. The Missouri Department of Social Services said there were four reports of misconduct at Circle of Hope since 2006 that the agency substantiated: one of neglect, one of physical abuse and neglect, and two regarding sexual abuse.
The social services department said it cannot reveal when those reports were filed, who was accused or what action, if any, was taken.
Parents said it’s unacceptable that those complaints were not disclosed by the state.
“Why is that not a public record or known?” asked Brian Stoddard, a pastor in Washington state, who placed his daughter Emily at Circle of Hope in late 2017 when she was 15 and struggling with anger issues. “If I had seen that, I certainly would’ve changed my mind.”
Brian and his wife, Michelle, removed Emily in July this year after learning more about the ranch from former residents online. On the way out, Emily said, several girls gave her phone numbers for their families on slips of paper that she stuck in the sole of her shoe. “They asked me to shut the place down or get them in a safer place,” she said.
The Stoddard family went to the sheriff’s department to give a statement before leaving town, they said. Emily said that Boyd handcuffed girls frequently as a punishment, and performed what he called “swats,” which were spankings with a leather belt or paddle. The girls often did manual labor outside in 90-degree heat with no sunscreen and only one water bottle among 24 girls, Emily said.
“I wouldn’t think to ask, ‘Are you providing water to the girls?’” Michelle Stoddard said. “It’s just cruelty. Emily had a pretty bad sunburn and they sent her back out to work the next day, and now she has scars from sunburn. It’s ridiculous. It’s evil.”
Brian said before they left the ranch, Boyd requested that Emily sign a letter stating she had not been abused in any way. Brian refused, but two other parents and two former residents said they did sign similar forms, fearful Boyd wouldn’t let them leave otherwise.
Getting action on TikTok
The video Amanda Householder received from Askins does not show Boyd on screen, but she and several former residents said they instantly recognized his voice. The man is heard advising residents to attack a girl: “Knock her out.” Emily Stoddard, who was still at the ranch then, said Boyd was speaking to them in their dorm through an intercom system, and he was chastising a girl for drinking water without permission. Askins said he called child protective services when he left the ranch.
Amanda posted the video on Facebook and Twitter in March. Miranda Sullivan, a co-host of the podcast “Troubled,” about the troubled teen industry, saw it, and invited her on the show. Later, Sullivan suggested that Amanda start posting on TikTok, where others had been sharing their experiences at troubled teen programs.
“The benefit of TikTok is the kids who get activated and are amazingly useful,” Sullivan said. “With Circle of Hope, it got enough random people who were highly motivated to nag the local offices in Missouri who are not used to this much attention.”
As Amanda and former Circle of Hope residents began to post their own TikTok videos, a Cedar County sheriff’s deputy messaged her on Facebook on May 17 and said their office wanted to talk. The sheriff’s department told NBC News an investigation remains ongoing, and is being led by the state’s social services department. Gaither said his office is still waiting for them to complete their investigation and present a report to him.
Multiple former residents said they felt an urgency to try to shut down Circle of Hope after seeing a video of Cornelius Frederick, 16, being restrained at a youth facility in Michigan in April. Cornelius died two days later.
“That was always what I feared could happen,” said Carrie Reeves, who was a resident at Circle of Hope in 2014 when she was 14 and recalled Boyd and Stephanie restraining her with help from six other girls. “They are sitting on you, they are inflicting so much pain on you. If they’re not careful, they can kill you.”
After the state removed all the girls from Circle of Hope in August, the Householders told the Kansas City Star that they would not reopen because they didn’t want to deal with a “corrupt” sheriff’s department. This week, the ranch property appeared listed for sale on several real estate websites. The Householders have also taken down the Circle of Hope website.
Amanda said she hasn’t spoken with her parents since 2016. She said she feels relieved the ranch is closed, but she worries her parents will try to open another school, so she intends to continue pressing for criminal charges.
“I do know that what I’m doing is right,” Amanda said, “and it makes it easier because I know my parents hate me for it.”