Christian boarding school: ‘invasive’ background checks violate rights

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CNS International Ministries, which offers drug and alcohol recovery programs for children and adults under the Heartland name on its campus, alleges in federal lawsuit that new background check requirements violate due process and parental rights, federal privacy and religious freedom laws. Photo courtesy of the Heartland / Facebook Community

November 1 (UPI) – A Missouri nonprofit that operates a Christian boarding school is suing to stop the application of a new law that requires background checks for all staff at unlicensed youth residential facilities and requires notification to the State the identity of anyone 18 years of age or older who lives on the property.

CNS International Ministries Inc., which offers drug and alcohol recovery programs for children and adults under the Heartland name on its campus, alleges in a federal lawsuit that the requirements of the Residential Care Facility Notification Act violate the due process and parental rights, federal privacy laws, and First Amendment rights to religious freedom.

“The free exercise and the establishment clauses together confer on churches and other religious organizations the autonomy to order their own affairs, to decide for themselves, without governmental interference, questions of ecclesiastical government, doctrine, communication of this doctrine and internal administration. of their institution, ”says the trial.

However, by requiring “invasive” background checks, the Missouri Department of Human Services, which drafted regulations implementing the new law, claims to tell departments who is and is not eligible to be an officer or employee at Heartland. , according to the lawsuit.

“Department regulations restrict CNSIMI’s freedom to form an expressive association of those who share a common commitment to education, drug addiction recovery and religious faith,” the lawsuit said.

The law also denies parents of students a fair opportunity to obtain the type of education for their children that they have chosen at least in part for religious reasons, according to the lawsuit.

New requirements

Before the new law came into effect on July 14, boarding schools run by religious organizations were exempt from licensing requirements. Now, license-exempt residential care facilities, or LERCFs, must report their existence status, perform background checks, and meet various health and safety standards.

A Missouri Senate summary states that “Nothing in this statute will give any government agency the jurisdiction or authority to regulate or attempt to regulate, control or influence the form, manner or content of the curriculum,” of a school’s religious program or ministry. or an institution sponsored by a church or religious organization.

But the complaint, filed Oct. 12 in the US District Court in St. Louis, says DSS regulations do not contain a required exception for the employment of “ministerial” employees, including teachers, parents. housekeepers and other staff. The ministerial exception, which arose out of a 2012 United States Supreme Court decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. EEOC, gives Heartland the right to decide who will promote its message, according to the lawsuit.

Heartland seeks court judgment declaring it unlawful to condition the eligibility of participants in a recovery program upon disclosure of their identity and the outcome of a background check; interfere in the choice of CNS ministries with regard to agents, staff and subcontractors; require a list of staff and people living on the premises of the establishment; and penalize those who fail to submit to background checks.

DSS media director Heather Dolce said in an email to UPI that the department is not commenting on pending litigation.

Missouri KidsFirst, a chapter of the National Children’s Alliance and the Missouri Chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America, praised the law, saying it creates guarantees for children.

“This law fills a gap in our child protection system that had not been corrected for decades,” Jessica Seitz, the organization’s acting executive director, said in a statement.

Recovery programs

Heartland, which claims to carefully monitor staff and anyone directly involved in the unsupervised care of children, is an LERCF due to its boarding school, the Heartland Children and Youth Home. The organization runs separate recovery programs for girls, boys, women and men on its campus.

There are four boys and one girl in children’s recovery programs, the costume says.

Also on campus is the two-year Heartland Christian College and a K-12 school attended by recovering girls and boys, children of staff members, and children from the community. The men live in part of the campus which is in County Knox and are separated by a lake from the children, women and students who live in Shelby County.

“Heartland’s recovery programs, which have been operating continuously since the mid-1990s, seek to introduce concepts of Christian living and personal responsibility, helping men and women and boys and girls who are bound by addictions, attitudes and behavioral issues that control their lives, ”the costume says.

A background check includes an FBI fingerprint check and searches the national and state sex offender registries and the Missouri Family Care Safety Registry and its Central Abuse and Neglect Registry.

Under the law, individuals are considered ineligible to be employed or present at Heartland if they have pleaded guilty or have not contested or have been found guilty of, among other crimes, endangering children, child abuse or neglect, sex crime, theft, pornography offense, arson, certain gun crimes, terrorist threat or drug offense within five previous years.

“These people are not eligible to stay in Heartland, whether or not they have contact with children and, in many cases, whether their criminal offenses have anything to do with children,” the lawsuit said.

Individuals may be prohibited from working or living at Heartland if their names are entered in a central register on the grounds that there is probable cause or reasonable suspicion of the violation and whether or not they have appealed the placement to a court, according to the lawsuit. An institution is not told why a person is found to be ineligible.

It is a Class B offense for someone to knowingly fail to complete a criminal background check that is required by law. Facilities may be closed for non-compliance.

A second chance

Heartland alleges that the provision making people who have committed drug-related offenses on their records in the past five years ineligible to be at its facility threatens the viability of its recovery programs.

David Melton, general counsel for CNS International Ministries, told UPI that many participants in the recovery program are there because they have committed drug-related crimes and are creating a diversion. People who made a mistake deserve a second chance, Melton said, stressing that he was not talking about offenders who have committed sexual abuse or crimes.

“We are the buyout business,” Melton said. “That’s what we do. Redemption is about people who have sinned.”

He added that some of the best leaders in recovery programs have rap sheets.

“They’ve cleaned up their lives and we’re not going to let the state of Missouri tell us they’re not eligible to be on our premises, let alone run our salvage programs,” Melton said.

The change in law this year came after the Kansas City Star published a series of articles about abuse in faith-based reform schools.

Heartland was not one of those stories. The lawsuit says that “to Heartland’s knowledge there is no listing in the central Missouri registry for abuse and neglect that resulted from an adult-child incident in the boys’ recovery program or girls over the past 20 years, and no felony or misdemeanor convictions resulting from such interactions in all of Heartland’s history, dating back to its beginnings in the mid-1990s. “

“We are a safe place for children,” said Melton.

In 2001, several abuse allegations were filed against the Heartland, leading authorities to remove 115 children from the facility and lay criminal charges against five employees, according to The Star.

The newspaper said a series of lawsuits and challenges followed and, in the end, all charges were dropped or staff were acquitted and the state paid attorney fees and legal costs. Considerable justice to settle a lawsuit brought by Heartland.


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