Longtime Agape director testifies in Missouri court to stay off child abuse registry

Bryan Clemensen, who was the director of Agape until last month, testified Monday that being placed on the state’s registry would damage his employment prospects and reputation.

By: - December 13, 2022 5:55 am

The Cole County Courthouse in Jefferson City (Tessa Weinberg/Missouri Independent).

The former director of Agape Boarding School pleaded with a Cole County judge on Monday to keep himself off the state’s central registry of child abuse and neglect so he can keep working with children.

Bryan Clemensen was the long-time director of the Stockton-based reform school for troubled boys until last month, he testified Monday. 

The Missouri Department of Social Services says it substantiated five preponderance of evidence findings against Clemensen — one count of child neglect and four of physical abuse. 

The department is seeking to add Clemensen’s name to the state’s child abuse and neglect central registry, a database listing the names of those the state has concluded perpetrated child abuse or neglect. Those listed in the central database are forbidden from working in residential care facilities such as Agape and are subject to other limitations working around children.

Employers at facilities which provide services or care to children can request to access the registry’s information.

Clemensen is asking the court for a preliminary injunction to remain off the central registry. 

“If I’m on the central registry in the state of Missouri, I’d effectively no longer be able to work at Agape,” Clemensen testified Monday in Cole County, adding that after spending decades working with troubled teens, he would have to seek a “career change.” 

Clemensen was notified of the state’s findings in May. He appealed the decision, and the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board independently reviewed the case last month and upheld the social service department’s findings. 

At that point, Clemensen’s attorney in this case, Jason Call, filed a motion for a restraining order to temporarily prevent the state from placing him on the registry — which Cole County Circuit Judge Brian Stumpe granted late last month. 

Clemensen’s motion argued that being placed on the registry directly affects his “reputation and ability to obtain employment,” as well as the “continued operation of Agape…which relies upon [Clemensen] and other employees for its continued operation.” 

The judge ruled that allowing the Department of Social Services to list Clemensen on the registry while his appeal is pending could “result in significant damage to Petitioner’s reputation and will directly interfere with Petitioner’s employment.”

The judge will issue a decision on the preliminary injunction Dec. 21, as the temporary restraining order expires Dec. 22. 

‘Career change’

The hearing Monday did not detail the specific allegations against Clemensen. According to the attorneys’ characterizations, the abuse findings deal with allegations of Clemensen’s use of physical restraints, and the neglect finding involves allegations that Clemensen withheld food. 

Clemensen denies the allegations and seeks a full hearing on their merits. 

He served as director of Agape from 1990 to 2008, and 2018 to November of this year. He is now a property manager in Stockton, he testified Monday, for Agape Land Management and Clemensen Family Land.

Asked if he can survive on income from property management, Clemensen said “absolutely not,” and that he is looking at local job boards for other employment, but knows if he is “put on the list, I’m going to have to have a career change.” 

As his attorney summarized it, “at 57 years of age, you’d be looking for a new career.” 

Clemensen’s testimony is the latest in a string of court developments surrounding the embattled boarding school, which has faced mounting allegations of abuse from former students and was at the center of a Kansas City Star investigation of unlicensed boarding schools in 2020. 

Agape currently faces over 20 lawsuits, which include allegations from former students that they were physically restrained and starved as a form of punishment, forced to submit to physical labor and taken off prescribed medications and reassured that “God would fix them.” Other court filings detail allegations including that students experienced “severe bruising” after being restrained, were slammed into the ground and pushed into walls, and kept in handcuffs for days at a time. 

Last year, the Cedar County prosecuting attorney Ty Gaither filed only a fraction of the counts against Agape that Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt recommended. Of the five staff members charged by Gaither, two of them last week pleaded guilty last week to lesser misdemeanors and the case was dropped against a third. 

Although the attorney general and social services department filed litigation to shutter Agape in September, alleging a systemic pattern of abuse at the school which raises health and safety concerns to current students, the case has been tied up in court and the school remains open. 

Clemensen’s case against the Department of Social Services is distinct from the state’s case against Agape Boarding School — both are ongoing. 

25 students remaining

Clemensen’s attorney, Jason Call, on Monday alleged a lack of due process in the child abuse and neglect registry appeals process as a leading reason the judge should enjoin the state from listing Clemensen on the registry. 

His child abuse and neglect review board hearing took place Nov. 17 and was limited to 20 minutes for each side. Clemensen did not have the right to hear witness testimony or present evidence, Call said. 

Under Missouri law, board hearings are conducted as reviews rather than contested cases, and are conducted informally rather than with the rules of evidence applying, meaning there is no cross examinations or witness testimony. 

Call also said he requested Clemensen’s investigative file from Children’s Division in order to prepare for the review board hearing and received over 5,000 pages of records, nearly 4,000 of which were “completely redacted.” 

Missouri statute outlines that Children’s Division should, in fulfilling records requests from the alleged perpetrator, redact “any information that may identify the reporter of the incident in question,” along with any privileged or confidential information that could jeopardize a person’s safety. 

“How do you defend against something when you don’t even know what you’re defending against,” Call asked, arguing that the review board did not provide sufficient due process. 

“They’ve got to prove these allegations actually are true, and that the abuse that they’ve alleged actually took place and that it wasn’t part of some rampant plan or strategy on the part of a select group of students to try to close the school, or motivated by some other improper interest,” Call said. 

Rebecca Hamilton, a Children’s Division out-of-home investigations supervisor, who testified Monday and was in charge of making the findings in Clemensen’s investigation, said their findings relied on sources including witness interviews, medical records, and child advocacy center interviews. For the physical abuse allegations against Clemensen, there were 10 to 15 witnesses, Hamilton stated, and there were 16 witnesses in the neglect investigation. 

There are only 25 students currently living at Agape, Clemensen said Monday, down from 121 in February 2021 before the social services department and Missouri State Highway Patrol launched their investigation. 

In September, Agape leadership announced the school’s format would transition to five group homes rather than a boarding school type facility. 

Now, there are four group homes, and they are “about to go down to three,” Clemensen said, because the number of enrolled students is low and dwindling.

There was a “mass exodus” of staff at the end of September, Clemensen testified Monday. 

“Some of the staff, as they say, ‘saw the writing on the wall,’” Clemensen said. There used to be a budget of $4 million per year, he said, and now it is $400,000 — quickly adding that now, “I’m sure it’s not even that.” 

Clemensen’s case was combined with the case of another former Agape staff member which was heard Monday, at 27-year-old named Timas Arya.

The Department of Social Services substantiated three physical abuse findings against Arya, who started working at Agape in 2017 in various capacities, including as a supervisor, and left three months ago.

Arya, who studied at bible college to become a youth pastor, said he feels working with youth is a calling from God.

“I wouldn’t know what else to do,” Arya said, if he were placed on the registry and rendered unable to work with youth, calling the possibility “devastating.”

In Arya’s case, as well, the majority of the investigative file was redacted, which Call said hindered his efforts to provide counsel to Arya for the review hearing. 

In his closing remarks, Call underscored individuals’ “right to chosen employment,” though he and the state’s lawyer, Hannah Thomas, disagreed over whether such a right exists in statute. 

To provide the injunction, Clemensen’s legal team must prove the case is likely to succeed on its merits, which Thomas argued is unlikely. Thomas also questioned whether the court has the authority to enjoin an executive agency. 

Judge Stumpe will issue a decision Dec. 21.

The state argued for the “significant public interest” in protecting children, by placing Clemensen and Arya on the registry. 

“The outcome is really simple, judge: We don’t let child abusers have access to children,” Thomas, the state’s attorney, said in her closing remarks. 

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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.