Missouri appeals court to Agape judge: halt all action in case until further notice

Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]

November 3, 2022

By Judy L. Thomas and Laura Bauer

Editor’s note: this story has been updated to clarify the appeals court order, which halts any action in the case until further notice.

The Missouri Court of Appeals has ordered a Cedar County judge to halt all further action in the Agape Boarding School case until it issues a final decision on a recent motion.

“You are directed to refrain from taking further action,” the appellate court wrote in a ruling that was issued Wednesday, “ … until further order of this court.”

In what is called a preliminary writ of prohibition, the appellate court said the only action Associate Judge Thomas Pyle could take in the case is to vacate his Oct. 12 order that the state appoint a guardian ad litem for each Agape student and to include all the parents as parties to the AG’s petition to shut down the school. Late last month there were 35 students remaining at the Christian boarding school near Stockton.

The appellate court told Pyle to wait for its subsequent order. It gave the judge until Nov. 14 to file a response to the attorney general’s request that his order be rescinded.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and the state Department of Social Services have been trying to close the school since Sept. 7, when they filed a motion for “injunctive relief,” saying the safety of students was in jeopardy.

Many men who attended Agape in their youth have told The Star over the past two years that 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 case has become a back-and-forth legal battle played out in court motions and numerous delays. In a motion last month, the AG said Agape and the courts have delayed the case nine times and continued or canceled six hearings.

The AG’s office filed that motion after Pyle — the second judge to handle the case — canceled a two-day hearing, scheduled for Oct. 13 and 14, on whether to issue a preliminary injunction that would close the school and remove students.

Pyle then approved a request by Agape to order the state 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 Cedar County school.

That’s when Schmitt filed the motion for the writ of prohibition asking the state Court of Appeals to rescind Pyle’s order. In that motion, the AG described Agape as a boarding school where “staff have routinely abused young boys for years.”

It also 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 motion said. Pyle’s order, it said, had caused delay in the case, “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 month’s hearing, he told both sides to give him some proposed dates for a trial in the case. Agape proposed four dates in July and August 2023. The AG proposed that a bench trial begin this month, on the 15th or 22nd.

The appellate order is “an important victory for our office in this case,” said Chris Nuelle, press secretary for the AG’s Office. “And we will continue to fight for the safety of students at Agape Boarding School.”

Agape’s attorney, John Schultz, said Thursday that the boarding school is open and “its focus remains on safely caring for and educating the students that reside there.” “…

Now the Attorney General has appealed the second Judge’s ruling which would have allowed the interests of the students and their parents to be considered at trial,” Schultz said. “Agape stands ready to have this case decided on the merits, whenever that may be.”

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

This story was originally published November 3, 2022 9:32 AM.