In a Tuesday afternoon hearing, Judge Thomas Pyle set a preliminary hearing and ordered that the Department of Social Services Children’s Division workers have 24-hour access to Agape Boarding School’s campus to observe the students there.
The preliminary hearing is set for Oct. 13 and 14. Pyle was assigned to the case after the Attorney General’s office requested a new judge. Cedar County Circuit Court Judge David Munton had initially been assigned.
The Missouri Attorney General’s office filed a new petition Monday, requesting that Agape Boarding School be shut down and its students removed to safety. The new petition comes after the AG office expressed intention to dismiss the Sept. 7 petitions.
In a phone conference Monday morning, Cedar County Circuit Court Judge David Munton dissolved the order that allowed Missouri Department of Social Services Children’s Division workers to remain at Agape Boarding School.
The attorney representing Agape Boarding School confirmed via email that there are no state workers at the school as of 12:51 pm
“The Attorney General’s Office fought hard to continue the 24/7 monitoring by DSS workers, but the Court denied the Office’s arguments and dissolved the order allowing that access. The Office has asked the Court under the new case that was just filed to reinstate DSS access to ensure that the students at Agape are safe,” said the Attorney General’s Office on Twitter.
In the same statement on Twitter, the office said it filed the second petition because it was “unable to present new evidence under the Second Amended Petition.” In addition to the second petition, the office filed an application for a change of judge.
“Agape Boarding School has a great lawyer and they have fought tooth and nail but in the end justice will prevail,” said former student and advocate Robert Bucklin. “The hundreds of victims who have come forth will see the day Agape closes very soon because we will not stop.”
“This new filing today is the Attorney General’s attempt at a ‘do-over,'” said Agape Boarding School attorney John Schultz.
The initial petition, filed on Sept. 7, sought immediate injunctive relief to close Agape Boarding School after a staff member was added to the Missouri Child Abuse/Neglect Central Registry, and there was not confirmation from the school about the staff member’s employment status.
House speaker asks for federal action
Missouri Speaker of the House Rob Vescovo, an Arnold Republican, wrote to federal prosecutors last week asking them to “act immediately” in regard to Agape.
“I believe it is appropriate for federal investigation and prosecution to take the next important steps to put an end to what amounts to child trafficking,” Vescovo wrote to US Attorney Teresa Moore of the Western District of Missouri. “If we are going to protect the many children who continue to be held captive at this institution, it’s clear your office offers the most expedient and effective path forward to obtain justice.”
He criticized “a long line of local officials who have either turned a blind eye to, or helped cover up, the criminal actions of the staff at Agape,” and wrote that “it is obvious that federal assistance is necessary” to protect students at Agape, in a letter first reported Mondayby the Missouri Independent.
Across the aisle, a House member has filed legislation during special session that would require all Missouri residential care facilities to be licensed, including religious ones that are currently exempt. Rep. Sarah Unsicker, a Shrewsbury Democrat, called it a “direct response” to Agape and other boarding schools’ ongoing litigation.
“For too long in Missouri, children in unlicensed care facilities have not had the protection they deserve because the Children’s Division has not possessed the oversight it needed,” Unsicker said in a statement. She’s scheduled a press conference for later this week on the legislation, which would likely fall outside the parameters of the governor’s current call for special session.
A May 2022 DSS investigation confirmed claims of an Agape employee neglecting or abusing children at Agape Boarding School. According to the finding of facts, that staff member declined to appeal DSS’s findings.
In September 2021, the Cedar County Prosecutor, Ty Gaither, filed 13 low-level “Class E” felony assault charges against five people linked to Agape Boarding School.
More than 19 lawsuits have been filed against Agape Boarding School by former students.
Susan Szuch is the health and public policy reporter for the Springfield News-Leader. Follow her on Twitter @szuchsm. Story ideas? Email her at [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: New judge sets preliminary hearing date for Agape Boarding School case
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