Judge grants injunction keeping longtime Agape director off Missouri child abuse registry
Bryan Clemensen cannot initiate physical contact with any student at Agape, the judge ruled, but is allowed to keep working at the school
The Cole County Courthouse in downtown Jefferson City (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).
Agape Boarding School’s longtime director once again won a court order Wednesday keeping his name off Missouri’s central registry for child abuse and neglect.
Cole County Circuit Court Judge Brian Stumpe granted Bryan Clemensen’s request for a preliminary injunction against Missouri’s Department of Social Services on Wednesday morning, the second time Clemensen has won a ruling keeping his name off the registry that would ban him from working in residential care facilities such as Agape.
The state said it substantiated five preponderance of evidence findings against Clemensen — one count of child neglect and four of physical abuse.
But Stumpe ruled Clemensen will remain off the registry until a final judgment is issued in a full trial, or until further order from the court.
Listing Clemensen on the registry while his appeal is pending, Stumpe ruled, would be “likely to result in significant damage to [his] reputation” and would “directly interfere with [his] employment.”
Stumpe wrote that none of the findings against Clemensen were of sexual abuse, and “some witnesses who initially offered evidence to the initial investigation have since recanted their testimony.” Clemensen’s appeal requires a full de novo hearing, Stumpe wrote, with the rules of evidence.
Clemensen cannot initiate physical contact with any student at Agape, Stumpe ruled, but is allowed to keep working at the school.
Wednesday’s ruling is the latest in the ongoing saga of Stockton-based Agape Boarding School, which Clemensen led from 1990 to 2008 and again from 2018 to November of this year. According to the most recent business filings with the state, he is still listed as the president and registered agent of Agape Baptist Church, the nonprofit which oversees the school. He testified last week he is no longer the director.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and the state’s social services agency has been trying to shut the school down for months over mounting allegations from former students that staff physically, psychologically and sexually abused them.
Clemensen is one of several Agape staff members to have findings of abuse and/or neglect, according to the state’s legal filings. A former staff member, Timas Aryas, who the state also found to have perpetrated abuse, had his case heard in tandem with Clemensen’s last week and was also granted relief to stay off the registry Wednesday.
The state is seeking to place Clemensen on their registry, which subjects alleged perpetrators to limitations on working with children. The central registry information is not public, but employers at facilities which provide services or care to children can request access to the registry’s information.
Clemensen appealed the social service department’s findings, and the state’s Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board independently reviewed and upheld the state’s findings against Clemensen last month. At that point he would typically have been added to the registry, but Clemensen’s attorneys have succeeded in fighting that: First, by obtaining a temporary restraining order last month, which is set to expire this week, and now, a preliminary injunction.
Clemensen’s attorney, Jason Call, has argued that the review board hearing was an insufficient form of due process. The hearings are, under Missouri statute, conducted as reviews rather than contested cases, meaning there is no witness testimony or cross examination. Call also argued Clemensen’s reputation, ability to obtain employment, and the “continued operation” of the school would be at risk, in the original appeal last month.
Last week, Clemensen testified publicly about his longtime commitment and continued desire to work with children.
“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 last week in Cole County, adding that it is a school he helped found, along with his parents and wife in 1990, and that after spending decades working with troubled teens, he would have to seek a “career change.”
According to the attorneys’ characterizations during a hearing last week, the state’s abuse findings deal with allegations of Clemensen’s use of physical restraints and the neglect finding involves allegations that Clemensen withheld food.
Former students told The Kansas City Star in 2021 that Clemensen was known for his “‘Jurassic elbow,’” in which he would strike the back of students’ heads or between their shoulders.
Clemensen denies the allegations.
The full trial on the merits of the allegations against Clemensen has not yet been scheduled.
Agape currently faces more than 20 lawsuits alleging a variety of physical and sexual abuse, including accusations that staff would pin students to the ground while pushing on their pressure points.
One former student suing the school, Robert Bucklin, said he was restrained for over an hour at a time as a teenager there in the late 2000s and that staff confiscated letters to his parents in which he had written that he was “treated like a dead rat” and didn’t want to be there.
Other allegations include that students’ food was withheld as a form of punishment, that they were forced to submit to physical labor and extreme exercise and were taken off prescribed medications and reassured that “God would fix them.” Recent court filings detail allegations that students experienced “severe bruising” after being restrained, were slammed into the ground and pushed into walls, attempted suicide and were kept in handcuffs for days at a time.
Agape has denied these allegations.
“For the past 30 years Agape has provided over 6,000 boys with an opportunity to get their life back on track and toward a bright future,” Agape’s attorney in the state’s case to close it, John Schultz, said in the statement in August, calling accusations “sensational” and said that the “24/7” supervision of students meant that several allegations “could not have happened.”
Schmitt and the social services department filed litigation to close Agape in September, alleging a systemic pattern of abuse at the school which raises health and safety concerns to current students. But the case has been tied up in court and the school remains open.
There were only 25 students as of last Monday, down from 121 in February 2021.
Last year, the Cedar County prosecuting attorney Ty Gaither filed only a fraction of the criminal counts against Agape Schmitt recommended after his office conducted an investigation.
Missouri House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, alleged the lack of charges was the result of “undeniable corruption” and “inaction” by local officials such as Gaither. The Star has investigated ties between Agape and Cedar County law enforcement, including sheriff’s deputies who worked at Agape.
Gaither has since denied any allegations of corruption and said he filed so few counts because he does not believe the restraint and pain compliance techniques Agape staff allegedly performed qualify as abuse under Missouri law.
Of the five staff members charged by Gaither, two of them pleaded guilty to lesser misdemeanors and the case was dropped against a third.
Clemensen is not the only Agape employee who DSS has found to have abused or neglected children. According to a motion in a former student’s lawsuit last month, there are seven others affiliated with Agape DSS found by preponderance of evidence to have abused or neglected children. DSS did not respond to confirm that figure, or to confirm whether those individuals are in the appeals process, or have been added to the registry.
In 2005, an Agape staff member named Jacob Joseph Mayer was convicted for first-degree statutory sodomy involving a student.
In August of this year, former Agape dean Julio Sandoval, who also ran a transport business to bring children to boarding schools, was federally indicted for violating a protective order. He allegedly arranged for a boy to be transported from Fresno, California to Missouri against his will. The boy had an active protection order against his mother, according to the indictment, and she allegedly worked with Sandoval, who arranged for the child to be brought in a 27 hour long journey, handcuffed, to Agape.
Clemensen’s attorney in this case, Jason Call, argued last week that Clemensen lacked due process in the child abuse and neglect registry appeals process, and thus deserved to be left off the registry while they awaited the full trial.
The social services department argued Clemensen’s case did not meet the standard for granting an injunction, primarily because he had adequate recourse in the law. Missouri statute outlines the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board hearing as a satisfactory form of administrative review and due process, the state argued.
Under Missouri law, child abuse and neglect board hearings are conducted as administrative 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.
The governor appoints the members of the review board.
The state also argued Clemensen could not prove his case was likely to succeed on the merits in court, and that the court would be overreaching by enjoining an executive agency’s decision.
The state argued Clemensen should be put on the registry while awaiting trial, saying in a brief last week that “it is not unusual for allegedly abusive adults to be excluded, voluntarily or involuntarily, from the home where children are residing pending the outcome of child protection proceedings.”
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