Court order would close Agape boarding school after years of abuse allegations • Missouri Independent

A Cedar County judge on Wednesday ordered the Agape boarding school closed after years of allegations of sexual and physical abuse of students – although the order remains on hold until after a hearing on Monday morning .

The judge’s order came in response to a request from the Missouri attorney general’s office and the Department of Social Services for the school to close.

The state’s injunction to close the Christian Reformed School in Stockton marks a long overdue development for many advocates and alumni who have called for its closure, although it will not yet spell victory for them.

“I hope Agape will be shut down,” said Robert Bucklin, an Agape alumnus who is suing the school. “It’s been a long time coming.”

The state’s Department of Human Services found by a preponderance of evidence that an Agape staff member had physically assaulted a child, according to the state’s petition. The Agape staff member had a Tuesday appeal deadline to challenge the findings, but failed to do so, according to the petition, and was therefore placed on the state’s Central Child Abuse and Neglect Registry children.

Missouri law prohibits people on the registry or those with documented findings of child abuse from working in a residential care facility.

On Thursday morning, however, the judge asked for verification that Agape was still employing the staff member. In the event the employee is no longer employed by Agape, the judge wrote, the court will hold a hearing to determine whether the employee was terminated.

If the school has not terminated the employee, the order will be carried out and the school will be closed.

The Cedar County hearing is now scheduled for Monday morning, having been delayed from Thursday, meaning the order to close the school is on hold until then.

The attorney general’s office said in an emailed statement, “We will continue to fight for the children of Agape and look forward to presenting our case on Monday.”

In the meantime, until Monday’s hearing, two employees of the state’s Children’s Division will have “24-hour access to the Agape facility to observe the children there,” according to an entry. in the file registered Thursday afternoon.

If the order is carried out, it will “cease the operations of Agape” and provide the “appropriate removal” of the children currently there, who will be placed in the custody of their parent, legal guardian or other appropriate parties. at the discretion of the court. While the children wait for their guardians, or in the event the guardian refuses to pick up a child, the order places the children in the temporary custody of the Children’s Division.

The DSS, in the injunction motion, said the Agape staff member was listed as an employee on August 22 during an employee census and that the state had “not received any information regarding a change in employment status”.

It’s systemic. This is widespread. There is a culture of abuse that occurs in this establishment.

– State Representative Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit

Rep. Keri Ingle, a top Lee Democrat who helped craft the state’s 2021 law that gave the attorney general’s office and the Department of Human Services greater oversight of unlicensed residential facilities, said that she hopes to see Agape shut down even if it turns out the employee was terminated.

“It’s systemic. This is prevalent. There’s a culture of abuse that’s happening in this facility,” Ingle said, “and that the Department of Human Services and the Attorney General’s Office have determined that they don’t cannot ensure the safety of children there, due to this substantial evidence of abuse that is ingrained in the culture of this establishment.

Former Agape students said Thursday morning they were “sitting on pins and needles” awaiting the outcome of the hearing.

James Griffey, who attended Agape as a student from 1998 to 2001 and left in 2002 after working on staff, said he was in a whirlwind of emotions on Thursday after hearing the news. He felt excited, but hesitant at the same time after numerous instances where he felt the authorities were about to close the school, only for it to continue to stay open.

“Just because they’re on the list doesn’t mean they suddenly become a bad person because they’re on a list. They committed abuse. They abused the children,” Griffey said. “They should still close the school. There should always be consequences for employing someone like that for as long as they have.

Griffey noted that Agape staffers have strong ties to local law enforcement, a point Schmitt’s office raised in its petition to shut down the school.

At least three employees of the Cedar County Sheriff’s Department currently work or have worked at Agape, including two full-time deputies, one of whom is married to the daughter of Agape’s founder, the petition states.

On Tuesday, The Independent reported that the DSS substantiated 10 preponderance of allegations of physical abuse in Agape. DSS added another staff member to the registry on Wednesday, according to its injunction request.

In May, the DSS backed up allegations of abuse against two former employees who declined to appeal the findings, which became final on July 29. These staff members no longer work for Agape, the petition states.

Griffey, who is now 39 and lives in California, said he was worried about what would happen to the boys currently attending Agape if they were deported. For real justice to be served, more needs to be done than closing the school, Griffey said. He wants to see Agape staff members finally brought to justice and charged with child abuse.

“For me, it’s really about protecting children,” he said. “Closing the school is one thing, but there are all these other schools where these abusers would easily be accepted as employees because they worked at Agape.”

Former students have criticized the fact that the school remains open for months, despite numerous lawsuits and allegations of abuse. Ingle said she understands the lingering concerns and shares the desire for facilities like Agape to be shut down as soon as possible, and is already talking with DSS Legislation to propose who would expedite such situations to allow them to file injunctions and suspend. staff members under investigation for allegations. abuse or neglect.

“If someone is being investigated or undergoing an appeal process for findings of child abuse, neglect against them, they should not have access to vulnerable populations for this process,” Ingle said. “Until this process is completed and they are exonerated.”

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has previously disagreed with Cedar County Attorney Ty Gaither, who only prosecuted a fraction of the 65 counts against 22 staff members Schmitt recommended to further investigation by his office.

The Attorney General’s office said in an emailed statement: ‘For more than a year, we have fought for accountability and justice, but have been stymied by the Office’s lack of initial criminal jurisdiction and a prosecutor uncooperative at almost every turn.”

The local prosecutor retained jurisdiction over the case, leading Schmitt to ask Governor Mike Parson to remove his office from the case.

“It shows that the kids you abuse today are the ones who are going to knock you down tomorrow,” Bucklin said. “We were mistreated by Agape but we weren’t afraid.”

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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