During Blaze Lutwinksy’s first night at the ranch in 2011, she said, a health issue caused her to throw up a bologna sandwich, and Boyd and Stephanie ordered her to eat.
“I ate bologna, I threw up, immediately I got caught up in my own vomit,” said Lutwinksy, who was 16 at the time. “He told me that I had better get used to following the rules or that this was going to be my life.”
House members allowed residents to call their parents once every two weeks for 15 minutes on the speaker. If the girls said they wanted to come home or complained about their treatment at the ranch, 17 former residents and staff said, MPs would immediately end the call. The letters home were also censored by Boyd, they said.
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Dajah Potter, 20, said social service workers came to the ranch four times when she was there from 2016 to 2018. If they came when the girls were outside, she said, heads of household would ask everyone to come in and go to a secluded room to keep them out of sight of social workers.
“They were afraid that we were telling the truth, that I was being abused,” Potter said. She said Boyd once sprayed her with a hose outside in the winter because he thought she was pretending to be sick.
Stephanie said witnesses could 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 people in society,” Stephanie said in an email. “Sadly, there are a few girls who choose to continue their past actions and some are now making false accusations.”
The complaints began the year the ranch opened
Amanda Householder’s relationship with her parents deteriorated as she grew older. As a teenager, she often filled the role of a staff member, but said her parents also put her in the program as a punishment. She said the extent of her bad behavior “was to think the boys were cute and listen to Green Day.” She moved in with other family members in 2009, at age 17, and the following year moved to California.
During the first few years on her own, Amanda pushed back many stories of former residents. She upset them on Internet forums when they spoke negatively about Circle of Hope. But after she had a child, and once she started talking directly with former residents, she began to reassess. She said she noticed their stories lined up. Amanda apologized for not believing them earlier and for not intervening while she was still living at the ranch.
“I knew the restraint was bad,” said Amanda, who is now a stay-at-home mom, “but I just kicked myself in the ass so I wouldn’t stand up against that at the time. I felt guilty, I felt like it was my fault, but this is one of the things I went through in therapy. I had to get over that.
In 2018, Amanda met Michelle Nickerson, who had tried to report her concerns about Circle of Hope to the Missouri Department of Human Services because her 16-year-old sister was at the ranch. Nickerson had been in contact with the Missouri Highway Patrol and together they began to recommend former residents to speak with officers.
The state highway patrol handed a report on its Circle of Hope investigation to a U.S. deputy lawyer, who last year refused to prosecute, according to an email from the sergeant who handled the investigation. Highway Patrol declined to release a copy of the report because it was being used in the ongoing investigation, and the sergeant declined to comment to avoid interfering with it. A spokesperson for the US 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 do a welfare check at the ranch because she feared her 15-year-old daughter, Amanda, might be mistreated. In a letter home, Amanda had included a secret safety note she had with her mother to signal that someone was harming her. Amanda said in an interview that she was only fed a quarter of a meal, her meds had not been administered and that she saw Boyd punching girls. The Sheriff’s Department and Social Services refused to do a welfare check, Dean said, and she pulled her daughter out of Circle of Hope.
The following year, 2007, Donna Maddox said she removed her daughter, Kelsey, then 14, from the ranch after her first visit, when she saw bruises on her that Kelsey said were from constraints. 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 falsely claimed to be registered with the Department of Education. ‘State.
The Missouri attorney general’s office said it had received three consumer complaints about Circle of Hope, and each had been “referred to the local attorney or appropriate authority.” The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it had received three complaints about Circle of Hope since 2008, but had no control over private schools. The Missouri Department of Social Services said there were four reports of misconduct at Circle of Hope since 2006 that the agency corroborated: one of neglect, one of physical abuse and neglect, and two of sexual abuse. .
The social services department said it could not reveal when those reports were filed, who was charged or what action, if any, had been taken.
“I wouldn’t think of asking, ‘Do you provide water for the girls?'”
Michelle Stoddard, mother of a former resident
Parents said it was unacceptable that these complaints were not disclosed by the state.
“Why is it not a public record or is it not known?” asked Brian Stoddard, a pastor from Washington state, who placed his daughter Emily in the Circle of Hope in late 2017 when she was 15 and struggling with anger issues. “If I had seen this, I would have certainly changed my mind.
Brian and his wife, Michelle, pulled Emily out in July this year after learning more about the ranch from former residents online. On the way out, Emily said, several girls gave their families’ phone numbers on slips of paper that she stuck in the sole of her shoe. “They asked me to close the place or put it in a safer place,” she said.
The Stoddard family went to the sheriff’s department to make a statement before leaving town, they said. Emily said Boyd frequently handcuffed girls as punishment and performed what he called “swats,” which were spanking with a belt or a leather paddle. The girls often did manual labor outside in 90-degree heat with no sunscreen and only one bottle of water out of 24 girls, Emily said.
“I wouldn’t think of asking, ‘Do you provide water for the girls? Said Michelle Stoddard. “It’s just cruelty. Emily got a really bad sunburn and they sent her back to work the next day, and now she has sunburn scars. It’s ridiculous. It’s bad.
Brian said that before leaving the ranch, Boyd asked Emily to sign a letter stating that she had not been abused in any way. Brian refused, but two other parents and two former residents said they signed similar forms, fearing Boyd would otherwise let them go.
Take action on TikTok
The video Amanda Householder received from Askins does not show Boyd on screen, but she and several former residents said they immediately recognized his voice. The man is heard advising the inhabitants to attack a girl: “Knock her out”. Emily Stoddard, who was still at the ranch at the time, said Boyd was talking to them in their dorm via an intercom system and was blaming a girl for drinking water without permission. Askins said he called Child Protective Services when he left the ranch.
Amanda posted the video to Facebook and Twitter in March. Miranda Sullivan, co-host of the “Troubled” podcast on the struggling teen industry, saw it and invited it to the show. Later, Sullivan suggested that Amanda start posting on TikTok, where others had shared their experiences in struggling teen programs.
“The great thing about TikTok is that kids are activated and are incredibly helpful,” Sullivan said. “With Circle of Hope, he’s attracted enough random, highly motivated people to harass local Missouri offices that aren’t used to so much attention.”
As Amanda and former Circle of Hope residents began posting their own TikTok videos, a Cedar County Sheriff’s Assistant messaged her on Facebook on May 17 and said their office wanted to talk. The Sheriff’s Department told NBC News that an investigation is still ongoing and is being led by the state’s Department of Social Services. Gaither said his office is still waiting for them to complete their investigation and report back to him.
“If they’re not careful, they can kill you.”
Carrie Reeves, former resident
Several former residents said they felt the urgency to try to shut down Circle of Hope after seeing a video of Cornelius Frederick, 16, stranded at a Michigan youth facility in April. Cornelius died two days later.
“It’s always what I feared could happen,” said Carrie Reeves, who was a Circle of Hope resident in 2014 at the age of 14 and remembers Boyd and Stephanie holding him back. with the help of six other girls. “They’re sitting on you, they’re giving you so much pain. If they’re not careful, they can kill you.
After the state pulled all the girls from Circle of Hope in August, MPs told the Kansas City Star they wouldn’t reopen because they didn’t want to deal with a “corrupt” sheriff’s department. This week, the ranch property appeared for sale on several real estate websites. Parliamentarians also removed the Circle of Hope website.
Amanda said she had not spoken with her parents since 2016. She said she felt relieved that the ranch was closed, but worried that her parents would try to open another school, so she left. ‘intention to continue to lobby for criminal charges.
“I know what I’m doing is right,” Amanda said, “and that makes it easier because I know my parents hate me for it.