Missouri judge once again delays closing Agape Boarding School

An attorney for the school, which faces mounting allegations of abuse by former students, says he’s optimistic it will remain open

By: - September 12, 2022 2:58 pm

Judge David Munton initially ordered Agape be shut down last week but paused the order so a hearing could be held (Getty Images).

A Cedar County judge Monday morning delayed a decision on the closure of Agape Boarding School, the Stockton-based reform school facing mounting abuse allegations from former students.

Judge David Munton initially ordered Agape be shut down last week at the request of the state Attorney General and Department of Social Services. The state’s petition for an injunction to cease operations claimed that an Agape staff member had been placed on Missouri’s child abuse and neglect central registry for physically abusing a student. 

A day after ordering the school closed, the judge pushed pause, requesting verification that Agape still employed the staff member. If the employee was still employed by the school then the order would go into effect, the judge said. If not, a hearing would be held. 

In his initial order, the judge cited the “immediate health or safety concern” the employee posed, per Missouri statute regarding closing residential care facilities. 

As it turned out, the employee had already been terminated. 

The state submitted an amended petition on Friday, outlining a pattern of abuse wider-reaching than the original petition. But Agape’s lawyer, John Schultz, argued that because it was submitted at 3:40 p.m. on the Friday before a Monday morning hearing, the amended petition did not give proper notice for a hearing. 

The judge agreed, and Monday’s hearing proceeded as planned on the original petition involving only the employee on the registry.

Schultz said in an interview Monday afternoon that the judge denied both of the state’s witnesses the ability to testify.

The first witness the state planned to have testify would not be allowed because he left the school in July 2021, Schultz said, and therefore “his testimony would have no bearing on the health and safety of the students at Agape today.”

The state was not allowed to present the second student’s testimony by Webex without court approval and the required prior notice, the judge ruled. Schultz said his team wants to cross-examine the student, in-person, because they have statements the student previously gave investigators about his allegations. 

They will take the testimony sometime later this week, Schultz said, which will then be presented to the court by videotape at the next hearing, which is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Sept. 21.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Schultz. “If the judge applies the law as he indicated today he will, then there should be no injunction issued. The school will not be closed.”

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, said in an email Monday that his office “did everything possible to present evidence and witness testimony, including that of victims of alleged abuse, to prove the pattern of abuse at Agape Boarding School. 

“The office still intends to present that case at the soonest possible opportunity.”

Nuelle added that the agreement arranged last week, for two state Children’s Division workers to have “24-hour access to the Agape facility to observe the children there” will continue until the next hearing. 

Schultz said: “We have no problem with people watching what we do because there’s nothing bad going on.” 

Department of Social Services spokesperson Caitlin Whaley said in a statement that DSS “is taking legal action because the agency feels there is an immediate health and safety risk to the children at Agape Boarding School,” and they ask that “anyone who suspects child abuse and neglect contact our hotline at 800-392-3738.”

Last week, The Independent reported that DSS substantiated 10 preponderance of evidence claims of physical abuse at Agape. DSS added another staff member to the registry on Wednesday, according to its petition for injunctive relief.

In previous testimony to state lawmakers, and in and lawsuits filed in state and federal court, former Agape students have described being physically restrained, sexually abused, starved as a form of punishment and taken off prescribed medications while reassured that “God would fix them.”

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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Clara Bates
Clara Bates

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty. She previously wrote for the Nevada Current, where she reported on labor violations in casinos, hurdles facing applicants for unemployment benefits and lax oversight of the funeral industry. She also wrote about vocational education for Democracy Journal. Bates is a graduate of Harvard College and a member of the Report for America Corps.