About half a year after stories over alleged abuse at Circle of Hopes Girls’ Ranch and Boarding School went viral and broke through headlines, the now-closed school is facing a state investigation and multiple personal injury lawsuits — but the fight against the troubled teen industry still calls back to Cedar County.
Troubled teen industry survivors and activists gathered in Stockton in the city park on Saturday, Nov. 14, for a rally that saw survivors sharing their stories and calling for more legislative action across the board against the troubled teen industry.
Around 50 people attended the event, including several former students of Circle of Hope and Agapé Boys Ranch.
The rally was organized by Amanda Householder, daughter of Circle of Hope’s founders, Boyd and Stephanie Householder; Miranda Sullivan, founder of the “Troubled” podcast, which focuses on institutional abuse; and Allen Knoll, former Agapé Boarding School student and author of “Surviving Bethel: A True Story of Surviving Torture and Abuse.”
Amanda Householder — who traveled from California for the rally — took the microphone during the event and spoke about her story regarding her experience with Circle of Hope and the journey she has experienced this year.
“My whole childhood, I was abused at home,” Householder said. “We were locked in my house. We were not allowed to leave. We were beaten for being kids. And when I say beaten, my dad would take golfsticks to us.”
Householder told the rally when Circle of Hope first opened in 2006, the school housed just herself and three girls, adding she had tried running away from home several times.
“Once we started getting more girls, it started getting extremely abusive,” Householder said. “We, as teenagers, were forced to sit on top of our peers’ pressure points and push all of our weight on their pressure points, and if we were not pressing hard enough, we were told it would be us next.”
Householder told the rally she was kicked out of Circle of Hope in 2009; after that, she did not want to “think about it anymore.”
“I did keep in contact with some of the girls, but once they started publicly speaking about it, that’s when I would just — I would cuss them out and tell them to shut up,” Householder said through tears.
It was not until 2016 that Householder received a message from another Circle of Hope survivor, which prompted her to reflect more about what she observed about her father and his alleged sexual abuse toward students, Householder said.
Around this time, Householder reconnected with a Circle of Hope survivor Maggie Drew — who was also in attendance at the rally — and believed Maggie about her alleged sexual abuse at the school.
The tellings of sexual abuse lined up “word from word,” Householder told the rally.
“They are not the only ones,” Householder said. “There are other girls, and every single one of their stories add up, and so that’s basically when we got together and decided we had to do something about this.”
Householder told the rally she and these other survivors started the group “Proactive Survivors of Circle of Hope” in 2016. They contacted the Missouri Department of Social Services, who allegedly told them their “hands are tied” and could do nothing, she added.
“We never got heard,” Householder said. “We were never getting any response back … We tried everything.”
Traction was quickly gained, however, when on March 8 of this year, a former Agapé student sent Householder a video taken at Circle of Hope.
“From there, he posted that video on Facebook, and it went pretty far,” Householder said.
When a boy at a religious troubled teen boarding school in a different state on May 1 of this year, Householder and other Circle of Hope survivors went on TikTok, a popular social media application, sharing their stories, which is how their call to action became fully amplified.
“It literally blew up overnight, and that’s why we are here,” Householder said.
‘This issue is nationwide’
Multiple other troubled teen survivors shared their stories at the rally, including Ashawn Dabey-Small, who is vice president of the National Youth Rights Association.
“I stand here as a survivor and an advocate on this issue,” Dabney-Small said. “We come here to reflect and mourn the experiences and the trauma we have faced in our younger years … We come to call on those who have taken part in this abuse.”
Dabney-Small told the rally “surviving” is a noun, meaning still living after surviving from something others have died or died of.
“Many of us have taken our own lives because of this traumatic experience,” Dabney-Small said. “Our stories of survival are a true testament of our true strength and courage to continue to live on and tell our stories so that others may know what took place in these institutions.”
Dabney-Small then said and repeated, “Child abuse is wrong,” to the agreement of the rally’s attendees.
“This issue isn’t just personal,” Dabney-Small said. “This issue is nationwide. There are children who still face this injustice to this day … don’t be afraid and hold on to your identity. Don’t let anyone tell you who you are supposed to be. Your life, your stories, matter.”
Dabney-Small said he hoped the rally — which saw several news crews in attendance, including NBC’s Dateline and promotion from celebrity and troubled teen survivor Paris Hilton — would give other survivors hope because activists “will continue to fight for you, and we will win,” he said.
More speakers shared their testimonies at the rally, including survivors of troubled teen schools from across the country, including Natalie Kay, a survivor from Tennessee who said she was “locked up and tortured” at the age of 17 in the now-closed Spring Creek Lodge Academy in Montana in 2004.
“What these so-called ‘adults’ put us through was torture,” Kay said, after detailing her abuse and prompting audience interaction. “These monsters are addicted to abusing power and they made fortunes on lies and abuse.”
“They may have been able to break our minds and bodies temporarily, but they will never break the strength of our spirits,” Kay said. “Our time has come, finally, to expose the reality of this multi-billion dollar industry of child abuse, no matter how hard they try to gaslight our truth.”