As lawmakers we have a solemn duty to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, which includes the many young people who deserve healthy, nurturing environments in which they can grow into adulthood. Unfortunately, even though we pass numerous bills each year dedicated to the goal of protecting children from harm, there continue to be cracks in the state system that too many young people have fallen through.

One of the biggest cracks in the system was revealed earlier this year when authorities removed 25 girls from the Circle of Hope Ranch due to allegations of abuse. An investigation revealed the boarding school had substantiated reports of neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse over the course of several years. Despite this, it continued to operate with no state oversight and no effort to stop the behavior that was harmful to the young people the camp was meant to help.

In response to this disturbing revelation, the members of the House Children and Families Committee that I chair took a closer look at what happened at Circle of Hope. Our goal was to not only discern the details of this particular incident, but also to learn if this case is indicative of a larger problem in our state.

We learned that faith-based boarding schools like Circle of Hope fall under an existing exemption that ultimately means they are not monitored by any of the state departments that would normally look into the health and well-being of young people. As we received testimony and additional information, it became clear to the committee that there are numerous facilities in the state that have abused vulnerable children in their care, with no state oversight, for many years.

To correct this egregious loophole, our committee outlined a set of recommendations meant to balance the need to protect children with the freedom for parents and religious teaching. Some of the commonsense ideas we are advocating for as a committee include requiring these facilities to abide by minimal health and safety requirements, requiring a one-time registration with the Department of Social Services, requiring background checks for anyone working at these facilities and creating a website where the public can see reports of abuse substantiated against registered facilities.

As my time in the legislature comes to a close, I implore my colleagues to continue the fight I have led as the chair of the House Children and Families Committee. My fellow legislators have the opportunity to file legislation that can put these reasonable solutions into effect as law. In doing so, they can ensure the state no longer turns a blind eye to the many young people who are sent to unlicensed facilities each year.

For too many years we were unaware of the abuse that took place at the many unlicensed facilities we have across the state. Now that our eyes finally see the ugly truth, it is time to act so our children know we care about them and will protect them from harm.

Sheila Solon is the District 9 state representative in Buchanan and Andrew counties. She is leaving her position because of term limits.