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Missouri Attorney General files second petition to shut down Agape

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The front entrance at Agape Boarding School was open during normal business hours Monday afternoon, but the Missouri Attorney General, the Missouri Republican Speaker of the House and former students are calling for the school to be shut down entirely. 

On Monday, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a new petition in Cedar County Circuit Court requesting that Agape Boarding School be shut down and its students removed to safety. 

The new petition alleges the following reasons for why children should be removed from the school: current Agape students have alleged abuse and neglect by current Agape staff members; former Agape students have corroborated reports of abuse and neglect by current Agape staff members; Missouri Department of Social Services Children’s Division has found multiple current Agape staff members abused or neglected students; and multiple Agape employees have not completed mandatory criminal background checks.

Additionally, the new petition said that Agape’s director Bryan Clemenson told a DSS worker last week that Agape’s direction is moving away from a boarding school facility. Instead, starting Tuesday, Sept. 27, the boys will be in five group homes on the property with an intention of nine boys per home. 

According to the Kansas City Star, two Agape staff members have filed paperwork to open group homes on the campus’ property. Those two staff members — Jennifer and Jason Derksen — filed the paperwork with the Missouri Secretary of State on Sept. 15 and described their new nonprofit, Stone of Help, as a “home for troubled youth.”

“The State will not allow Agape to escape accountability or continue to present an immediate health and safety concern to children through corporate shell games while employing the same people and methods that originally led the State to bring this action to protect children,” the petition stated.

During a phone conference Monday morning, Sept. 26, Cedar County Circuit Court Judge David Munton dissolved the order that allowed child welfare workers to remain on site at Agape Boarding School.

"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,” said the AG office in a statement on Twitter. 

The office said, in that same Twitter statement, it filed the second petition because it was "unable to present new evidence” under the second amended petition and is asking the court to reinstate DSS access to “ensure that students at Agape are safe.” 

Additionally, the AG office filed an application for a change of judge on Monday. The case is assigned to Cedar County Associate Judge Thomas Pyle, with a phone hearing scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27. Since press time preceded the hearing, this story will be updated online at cedarrepublican.com.

TOP LAWMAKER ALLEGES ‘SERIOUS CONCERNS’

Last Wednesday, Missouri Republican House Speaker Rob Vescovo wrote a letter to Kansas City U.S. Attorney Teresa Moore requesting assistance to shut down Agape. The letter became available to the media on Monday and accuses the school of “what amounts to organized crime against children.”

“Right now in Missouri, we are faced with the horrifying truth that a network of immoral individuals have engaged in what amounts to organized crime against children,” Vescovo said in the letter to Moore. 

But, Vescovo said the situation is “more far-reaching and contains more deeply-rooted corruption than we are able to address solely at the state level.”

On the legislative side of action, Vescovo said that Missouri has “gone to exhaustive lengths” to address allegations of abuse made against Agape, including increasing funding for Missouri’s Children’s Division. The state also passed protections for young people in unlicensed, faith-based reform schools. 

“Because some of these children have been transported across state lines to be sentenced to this ‘school’  where they've been subjected to physical, mental, and sexual abuse, 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 said. 

Vescovo praised the AG office in the letter, but said it’s clear Moore’s office “offers the most expedient and effective path forward to obtain justice.”

“The AG's office went to great lengths to help the 36 children who were victimized by 22 members of the Agape staff,” Vescovo wrote. “The AG's team identified 65 criminal counts, including felony child abuse, against the Agape staffers. Despite their efforts, the Cedar County prosecuting attorney chose to file assault in the third-degree charges against only five individuals.”

Last year in late September, after Schmitt wrote to the Office of Missouri Governor Parson asking to be removed from the Agape case as a special prosecutor in light of Gaither filing less charges than Schmitt desired, Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither wrote a follow-up letter stating that the assistance of the AG office was still needed at that time.

“While the Attorney General may feel that the work of his office has been completed, to withdraw from the case at this time would create the appearance of substantive disagreements between us which do not exist,” Gaither wrote in late September of 2021.

Since then, the AG office has remained on the case, while Gaither’s office retains the authority to file charges.

But, Vescovo alleges in his letter that “the lack of action” in the county against Agape raises “serious concerns about the undeniable corruption that is taking place at the local level.” He wrote that Cedar County is a “hub for child trafficking.”

“I urge you as the United States Attorney for the Western District to utilize your expansive resources to shut down this organized crime syndicate that has caused irreparable harm to too many children for far too long,” Vescovo concluded in his letter.

On the other side of the aisle, a Missouri House member is eyeing permanent change. Rep. Sarah Unicker, a Democrat from Schrewsbury, Missouri, filed legislation in special session that would require all Missouri residential care facilities to be licensed — including religious schools that are currently exempt.

In a statement, Unsicker called HB 15 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. “Licenses are required for hair stylists, the massage industry, lawyers, doctors, electricians, HVAC technicians, child care, truck drivers, funeral directors … licenses exist to protect the public. There is no reason to exempt a religious organization from license requirements.”

Unsicker has scheduled a press conference on the legislation in the Capitol on Thursday, which the Springfield News-Leader reports “would likely fall outside the parameters of the governor's current call for special session.” 

Marvin Manring, local Democratic candidate for House District 127 in the November election, has also been actively watching the case unfold and said he plans to attend Unsicker’s press conference Thursday to view in person. His biggest concerns lie with the allegations of abuse made against Agape and the lack of state resources and intervention.

The CCR reached out to Agape Boarding School for comment. No response was received by press time Tuesday. 

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