Agape school abuse trial should start next month, not next summer, Missouri AG says

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

October 17, 2022

By Laura Bauer, Judy L. Thomas Kansas City Star (TNS)

As Agape Boarding School pushes to delay a hearing over abuse allegations until next summer, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt said in a new court filing that a trial should start next month so no more children are harmed.

“Thirty-seven days have now passed since the State initiated action against Agape,” said the motion, filed Friday in Cedar County Circuit Court. It said the AG’s office would be ready to proceed by Nov. 15. “Yet still the State has not been allowed to present evidence or obtain relief for the children at Agape.

“The children at Agape have been forced to stay 37 days longer than they should have around the Agape staffers who have abused them or their fellow students in the past.”

The state also asked for current students to be interviewed off-site by forensic specialists.

The motion came after Agape’s attorney, John Schultz, proposed that a hearing on whether the school should be shut down could not take place until July at the earliest.

On Monday morning, Schultz responded to the AG’s motion, saying the state is blaming Agape for the delays. But, he said, it’s the AG’s office that hasn’t been prepared to proceed.

“The Attorney General continues to draft pleadings with rhetoric designed for the media, not this Court,” Schultz’s response said. “… Every argument made by the Attorney General about the delay in these proceedings is disingenuous, at best.”

The case against the school near Stockton has become a back-and-forth legal battle played out in court motions and numerous delays.

Last week, Associate Judge Thomas Pyle — who is the second judge to hear the Agape case — asked attorneys on both sides to present potential scheduling dates. But before the AG’s office had submitted its dates, the judge set a conference call with attorneys for Nov. 14 to discuss the case.

“The State should not have to wait another 30 days just to have a case management conference,” the AG’s motion on Friday said.

The Attorney General’s Office and Missouri Department of Social Services have been trying to shut down the embattled school since Sept. 7, when they filed a motion for “injunctive relief,” saying the safety of students was in jeopardy.

“Since then, Agape and the courts have delayed the case nine times and continued or canceled six hearings,” the motion from the AG’s Office said.

The new motion stated that 35 students were still at Agape. Last year, the school had more than three times that number.

Pyle canceled a two-day hearing, scheduled for last Thursday and Friday, on whether to issue a preliminary injunction that would close the school and remove students.

The judge then approved a request by Agape to order the state of Missouri to identify the parents of current students, make them parties in the case and give them “notice and opportunity to be heard at any future hearings.”

The judge also approved Agape’s request that guardians ad litem — who represent a child’s interest in court — be appointed for each of the students still at the school.

On Friday, Schmitt asked the state Court of Appeals to rescind Pyle’s orders.

In that filing with the appellate court, the AG described Agape as “a boarding school for young boys where, as set forth in the Attorney General’s petition for injunctive relief, staff have routinely abused young boys for years.”

It said Pyle’s order requiring that all of the parents be made parties and that a guardian ad litem be appointed for each child “was an abuse of discretion and exceeds Respondent’s authority.”

“Meanwhile, thirty-five children remain at Agape, in danger of being further abused,” the appeal said. “Respondent’s order has occasioned delay, and that delay will be compounded if the parents of thirty-five children must be added as parties to the proceedings and thirty-five guardians ad litem must be appointed to represent each child.”

When Pyle canceled last week’s hearing, he told both sides to give him some proposed dates for a trial in the case. Agape proposed four dates in 2023: July 10, July 24, July 31 or August 28. The AG proposed that a bench trial begin on Nov. 15 or Nov. 22.

Since Sept. 8, employees with the state’s Children’s Division have been at the unlicensed school around the clock to ensure the safety of students. When the school changed its structure to group homes last month, the state increased the number of workers there every day and asked workers from across DSS to help.

Boys are split up among several homes on the property at this point.

“This monitoring is important,” the motion said. “But ensuring workers are present at all times is difficult for an extended period of time that now stretches beyond a month, particularly since Agape’s change to group homes has quadrupled the number of DSS workers needed to provide round-the-clock monitoring.”

The Star has investigated Agape and other boarding schools in southern Missouri since late summer 2020. Many men who attended Agape 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.

Hearings were held on Sept. 12 and Sept. 21, with the AG’s office arranging for recent students to testify about the abuse they said occurred at the school. The judge at the time refused to allow the testimony.

“The State and its witnesses, some from out-of-state, have prepared for and traveled to multiple hearings, only to be denied the opportunity to be heard,” the AG’s motion said. “Whenever the State finally obtains a hearing, Agape no doubt will attack the State’s evidence on the grounds that the State has not shown the requisite immediacy, even though the numerous delays in this matter are due to Agape’s objections, failed appeals, and scheduling conflicts.

“The State and the Agape children have been severely prejudiced in both this case and the earlier case.”

Schultz contended, however, that the AG’s office caused the delays because it dismissed its original injunction case and refiled it with a new judge.

“If the interests of the children were so important to the Attorney General why did the Attorney General dismiss the first injunction on the very day it was set to be decided?”

In its motion, the state proposed that if its appeal to the Missouri Court of Appeals is denied, Pyle would allow the AG to appoint one guardian ad litem for each group home instead of one for each boy. The AG’s motion said there are now four group homes on the property.

“The case will be further delayed if 35 guardians ad litem become involved,” the motion said. “Many appointed guardians ad litem will be located hours away, and coordinating their schedules will make expeditious resolution difficult, if not impossible. For context, a list provided to DSS by the Juvenile Office for the 31st Circuit (Greene County) on October 14, 2022 includes only 16 licensed guardians ad litem.”