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Missouri child welfare officials suspend new placements at Great Circle in Webster Groves

Missouri child welfare officials suspend new placements at Great Circle in Webster Groves

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Great Circle's Webster Groves campus

The campus marker of the Great Circle headquarters at 330 North Gore Ave. in Webster Groves is photographed on Feb. 10, 2021. Great Circle is the largest provider of residential treatment for children in Missouri, mainly for those in foster care. The nonprofit organization has 13 residential treatment facilities statewide. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

WEBSTER GROVES — Missouri child welfare officials have suspended new placements to an embattled nonprofit organization here that works with youths who often have developmental disabilities and behavioral challenges.

In a Jan. 22 memorandum, Erica Signars, described as a special assistant professional of the Missouri Department of Social Services, wrote that admissions to the Great Circle campus at 330 North Gore Avenue have been suspended “effectively immediately” until further notice.

The memo didn’t provide an explanation for the suspension. Nor did spokespeople for the department or Great Circle.

“We can tell you that there has been no interruption to our daily operations, and we continue to work every day to help children and families,” Bev Pfeifer-Harms, director of marketing and communications at Great Circle, told the Post-Dispatch by email Monday.

Great Circle is the largest provider of residential treatment for children in Missouri, with 13 facilities statewide that mainly serve youths in the foster care system. The residential facility in question here, at Great Circle headquarters, is licensed for 68 children, age 6 to 21, according to state records.

After years of growth, Great Circle, formed in 2009 by the merger of Boys and Girls Town of Missouri and Edgewood Children’s Center, has been facing a lot of turmoil. Former CEO Vincent D. Hillyer, who ran the nonprofit when its annual budget grew from $30 million in 2009 to $85 million in 2019, has been charged with more than a dozen felony crimes in St. Louis County that accuse him of child endangerment and abuse of a health care recipient. He has pleaded not guilty.

On Feb. 2, federal agents raided the Great Circle campus here and at its 442-acre facility near St. James, in south-central Missouri. Federal officials refused to say why. Paula Fleming, who replaced Hillyer, told staff in a note last week that “we simply don’t know much about this investigation and may not know much for some time.”

In September, Clay Hensley, 15, eloped from the Great Circle facility near St. James and was allegedly killed by two fellow runaways who now await trial in Phelps County. Before the merger, the facility used to be the main campus of Boys and Girls Town of Missouri. A Post-Dispatch report revealed that elopement is common there and that neighbors sensed that it had become more of a problem under Great Circle.

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