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Missouri agency confirms at least 10 substantiated abuse cases at Agape Boarding School

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Missouri’s child welfare agency has substantiated 10 reports of physical abuse at Agape Boarding School, which has been under state and local investigation for the past 18 months.

Those findings are final dispositions and those involved have been placed on the state’s Central Registry for abuse and neglect and do not currently work at any boarding schools in Missouri, according to two top officials at the state Department of Social Services.

“The 10 that are being reflected on the registry, those have either already gone through the appeals process, or they chose not to file an administrative appeal,” Caitlin Whaley, DSS’ director of Policy and Communication, told The Star after it emailed several questions regarding Agape and abuse allegations on Tuesday.

It was not clear when the allegations occurred. In mid-May, DSS reported that Agape had no substantiated reports of abuse or neglect.

The state also notified multiple other staffers — who still work at Agape — that investigators had substantiated reports of abuse or neglect against them as well, The Star has learned. But at least some of those findings are under appeal, and state law allows them to continue to work at their jobs during that process.

“We are using all the tools that we have at our disposal at this time,” said Sharie Hahn, DSS’ general counsel, when asked why those staffers are still allowed to work at Agape and why the school remains open. “And we want to make sure that we’re being fair. We also want to make sure that people are safe.”

The total represents the number of abuse findings, DSS said, not necessarily the number of people investigated. In other words, one person could have multiple findings.

Whaley and Hahn said they could not discuss any findings other than the 10 or confirm that several are in the appeals process.

“We would not be able to comment on that until they are in final determination,” Whaley said.

The Star has investigated Agape and other boarding schools in southern Missouri since late summer 2020. Many men who attended the school in their youth said they were subjected to physical restraints, extreme workouts, long days of manual labor, and food and water withheld as punishment.

And, they said, former students endured constant berating and mind games and some were physically and sexually abused by staff and other youth.

Last September, five Agape staff members were charged with physical abuse. Their cases are ongoing. And last week, a federal grand jury indicted Agape’s former dean of students, accusing his company of violating a court order by taking a California teen to Agape in handcuffs and against his will.

Legislators successfully pushed for change in the state law to implement some oversight of the unlicensed Christian boarding schools in Missouri. That law, which requires schools for the first time to register with the state and conduct background checks on employees and undergo health, safety and fire inspections, went into effect in July 2021.

“I’m grateful that these (abuse findings) are finally coming forward, and that we’re able to actually have some action taken around them,” said Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “We’re going on years now of this conversation and continuing to find proof that these things are happening.

“I’m not sure why the facility is still open, to be honest. I see no reason why it’s still open when we have these substantiated claims. It’s beyond time, in my opinion.”

The attorney representing Agape on more than 20 civil lawsuits filed against the school by former students said he was not handling the DSS findings or appeals so he could not comment.

Many are frustrated that some staffers who were investigated for abuse and neglect, and are appealing their findings, still are able to work at Agape.

“When you’ve got people with substantiated preponderance of evidence findings … they should be at least suspended during the process, and not allowed to work with minors,” said Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, who was the first lawmaker to request legislative hearings after reading about abuse allegations at the now-closed Circle of Hope Girls Ranch.

“The entire point of having that system in place is to ensure that we don’t have people who we’ve made findings against having access to vulnerable people,” Ingle said.

A tweak in the law may be needed, Ingle and DSS leaders agreed.

“We invite that conversation with members of the General Assembly,” Hahn said, “and I suspect that that would probably be a conversation that they would want to have with us as well.”

“That conversation is happening,” Ingle said. “We’re in the off season unfortunately.”

Child welfare officials say they encourage anyone who believes someone is still being allowed to work at a licensed or unlicensed residential facility despite being disqualified to report that information to the state’s child abuse and neglect hotline.

“It’s going to take all of us to ensure safety in this situation because the law goes so far,” Hahn said. “And our authority goes so far. We all have a piece of that. So that’s why we ask for that kind of assistance.”

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