MO reform school’s ties to law enforcement stifle abuse investigations, students say
By Laura Bauer And Judy L. Thomas
Kansas City Star
November 29, 2020
Word spread inside Agape Boarding School last fall that a report had been made to Missouri’s abuse and neglect hotline and a social worker was on campus to investigate.
Lucas Francis, a student at the time, said he was told that someone had called the state to report that a group of boys was running laps on school grounds in below-freezing temperatures. Francis, one of the boys who said he was forced to run for hours in sleet and snow with only a light jacket on and no cap or gloves, was pulled aside to speak to the Children’s Division worker.
“I was pretty excited because I was finally going to be able to tell them what was going on,” said Francis, now 18, who left the school in March. “I was just going to let them know.”
Until, that is, he said he realized that he wouldn’t be talking to the Children’s Division worker alone. Also inside the parents’ lounge on the sprawling campus, in uniform and waiting for the interview, was Cedar County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Graves.
Graves, not only a deputy but an Agape alum and long-time employee of the school. Son-in-law of the owner, James Clemensen. And brother-in-law of the school’s principal, Bryan Clemensen.
“I knew that he was a former student, and I knew that any time the police got involved in anything, they called him,” Francis said. “He was like their right-hand man all the time.”
Several former students have told The Star that they suspected a close relationship between law enforcement in the rural southwest Missouri county and staff leaders at Agape kept them from thoroughly investigating allegations.
The Star, as part of its continuing investigation of unlicensed Missouri reform schools, reported earlier this month that two county deputies, including Graves, have worked at the school and other part-time and full-time sheriff’s employees have close ties to Agape.
Over the years, former students said, they tried to get local authorities’ attention. Several times, boys said they ran away to get help from the sheriff’s department, only to be driven right back to the school.
And former students, others close to the school and at least one mental health professional have reported concerns to law enforcement and the state about possible abuse, The Star’s investigation has found. But it’s not clear what was done after any of those complaints were lodged.
Child welfare experts find the connections troubling.
Having someone in the interview with Lucas who works at the school and is related to the owner and principal would be “deeply problematic,” said Emily van Schenkhof, a long-time child advocate in Missouri and current executive director of the Children’s Trust Fund, the state’s foundation for child abuse prevention.
“If we want children to trust us, we have to give them an environment where they feel safe to share what has happened to them,” van Schenkhof said. “... These are vulnerable children that are away from their parents. They don’t have the same rights, they don’t have the same ability to pick up a phone to call someone.”
It isn’t known if the Children’s Division worker knew of Graves’ connection to the school and people there. Cedar County Sheriff James “Jimbob” McCrary did not respond to emails with questions from The Star.
Rebecca Woelfel, a spokeswoman with the Department of Social Services, would not comment on the specific incident. She would only say that “child abuse and neglect investigations are often co-investigated with local law enforcement.”
Cases like this one, she said, are closed and confidential under Missouri law. She did not comment on whether the agency knew that Graves had worked at the school and was related to key staff leaders.
Graves also did not respond to emailed questions.
School officials have not responded to multiple questions from The Star for this or previous stories. Agape posted a lengthy letter on its website that was directed at parents in response to The Star’s Nov. 8 report on Agape. Leaders denied the allegations of former students and defended their program and employees.
“We on staff at Agape aren’t perfect, nor are the staff of any such program — sometimes we make mistakes, but our hearts are in the right place,” the response said. “We desperately want to help these boys, and we do for most boys who come here. Most boys flourish here and go on to a great future, while a small number of other boys are just not the right fit and get bitter for being brought here.”
In its investigation, The Star has detailed allegations by former students of physical and mental abuse inside Agape. Those allegations spanned nearly 20 years.
Francis is one of several recent Agape students who reached out to The Star after reading that first report in which 16 past students spoke out about the school. As one student who left the school in June put it: “I think the article was a beacon for certain kids. They are scared of Agape.”
Griffin Ross, of Kennett, Missouri, was at the school from November 2019 to March of this year. He said he struggled with how Agape’s treatment of kids went against the teachings of the Bible and how it was more about power for staff leaders than building up the students.
“There is a difference between correction and domination,” said Griffin, 15, who said he was talking to The Star with his mother’s knowledge. “That school focuses on domination. They know what they can get away with and they know what is right. They just don’t choose to do it.”
These recent students shared similar stories of abuse, as well as frustration that no one listened to their concerns or thoroughly investigated complaints. Like the students before them, they said their calls home were monitored and letters censored.
That’s why, for the boys last fall, it was such a big deal for the state investigator to be on campus.
Francis said that a staff leader escorted him to the parents’ lounge that day and told him to tell the truth, that he trusted him. The teen had built up the nerve to share what he had seen — the physical abuse of students and manipulation through mind games — in his two years at the school.
Having Graves in the room changed that.
“He was sitting next to me the whole time I was in there,” Francis said. “So I couldn’t say anything. Because he was sitting there looking at me, taking notes, like waiting for me to say something bad just so he could report back to Bryan (Clemensen) or Julio (Sandoval, dean of students).
“It was another way of them making sure they had all the cracks filled, that nothing could be said without them knowing about it. It was a way for them to cover up their tracks again.”
Abuse and neglect investigations
What Francis said happened that day last year highlights how crucial it can be for children to feel safe and comfortable in a neutral location when being interviewed about possible abuse or neglect.
Child welfare experts and advocates said in a legislative hearing earlier this month that it’s best for kids to be interviewed off site, not at the location of the alleged abuse or neglect.
“As best practices, kiddos are interviewed outside of those walls,” said Kelly Schultz, director of the Missouri Office of Child Advocate.
The goal is to not have anyone or anything influence the child and what he or she reports.
When told of what Francis said he experienced in the interview at Agape last year, experts and child advocates said that the chain of events exposed some issues.
“Best practice would dictate that the deputy’s involvement would pose a conflict of interest since he is employed by the agency being investigated,” said Vickie Dudley, executive director of the Children’s Center of Southwest Missouri, which does forensic interviews with children.
The standard process, Dudley said, would be for law enforcement and/or Children’s Division to do a “cursory interview” with the child to determine if something occurred.
“The information obtained from the cursory interview would determine if the child would go to Children’s Center for a full forensic interview,” she said. “If this child did not make a disclosure during the cursory interview, there would not have been cause to go to the Center.”
That’s why, child advocates said, it’s so important that a child feels safe during the initial contact and able to reveal what happened.
Though McCrary, the Cedar County sheriff, did not answer questions regarding what Francis said occurred last year, he did respond for the report earlier this month. The Star asked him then about Graves and others who work at Agape and have been employed by the sheriff’s department.
Graves’ daughter — James Clemensen’s granddaughter — was a sheriff’s dispatcher in 2018 and 2019, according to county financial records. She is married to the son of the doctor who provides medical care for Agape students.
Graves and another deputy work off-duty for a company that parents from around the country hire to transport their troubled teens to the school, McCrary said. The owner of that company, Julio Sandoval, is dean of students at Agape. He occasionally has worked shifts at the county jail, according to the sheriff. And Sandoval’s son is a full-time corrections officer.
An additional deputy worked off-duty security for Agape just months before he began investigating abuse allegations at Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, another Cedar County boarding school.
McCrary told The Star he was aware of the connections his employees have to Agape but said they haven’t influenced the department’s investigations.
“The Sheriff’s Office is an equal opportunity employer,” he said in an email to The Star. “We can not and do not discriminate on the basis of sex, race, religion, other employment etc.”
He added that whenever a possible conflict exists in an investigation done by the department, “the case will be passed to another agency or investigator for follow up.”
That seemingly would have kept Graves from being involved in the case. It isn’t clear why he was assigned to go to Agape with a Children’s Division worker.
Rep. Keri Ingle, a former social worker for the state of Missouri, knows how hard it is for children to come forward and share how they’ve been abused or neglected.
Having a law enforcement officer who also works at the place where abuse is alleged would intimidate a child, she said. And she understands why Francis chose not to speak out at that point.
“It’s the fox and henhouse kind of situation,” Ingle said. “I think (the teen) made the right choice to protect himself in that moment. He should have no shame about that. These kids need to protect themselves.
“It was on that deputy to excuse himself. They violated the sanctity of that investigation by not excusing themselves from that conflict of interest. I mean, come on.”
‘I pray for them every night’
Lucas Francis said he left the parents’ lounge that day last year hoping another boy would have the courage to do what he couldn’t.
“When (the staff leader) pulled me out (to be interviewed), a student was like, ‘Make sure you tell them everything.’ And I was walking myself back to school and he asked me if I could say anything and I said no, ’cause Graves was right there,” he told The Star. “I said, ‘Maybe someone else will have enough nerve to say it in front of Graves without worrying about what happens to them after that.’”
If he’d told the social worker what had really happened, Francis said, there would have been “severe consequences” — including being demoted to a “brown shirt,” the lowest level in the Agape pecking order.
“When you’re a brown shirt, you get your head shaved,” he said. “For breakfast, you eat one bowl of unsweetened Cheerios, then you go work out all the way up to lunch and do very, very vigorous workouts nonstop.
“There was times, if you weren’t doing things right, the staff member, if he had a ball in his hand, he would throw the ball at you. If someone didn’t do the workout good enough for them, he would punch everybody. There was times he would make kids run until they puked and then just keep running. It was a lot of stuff like that — that happened all the time.”
In the letter posted on its website Agape said staff leaders work with each of the 150 “troubled” boys on campus to help “turn around their self-destructive actions and attitudes.”
“Plus we need to keep the peace of the entire group,” the message said. “That is no easy task! Boys come to us with drug issues, anger and aggression, and most have no respect for authority. Many were expelled from public school for fighting and otherwise causing trouble.
“Maintaining order within a large group of aggressive boys requires structure, regimented procedures, and constant monitoring, since things can quickly spiral out of control.”
The recent students who spoke to The Star said it was hard for them to witness how certain students were treated at the boarding school.
A longtime Agape staff member, Griffin Ross said, once preached about following God’s path “and not being like one of these flaming faggots.”
It upset Griffin because he said he knew some of the Agape students were gay.
“And they would treat them like garbage,” he said. One student, he said, was forced to say, ‘I’m a pretty princess” over and over during workouts.
“In front of everyone,” Griffin said. “He had to scream it. During all the exercises.” And the staff member leading the drills, he said, would say, “‘Yeah, you’re damn right you are, faggot.’”
The recent students mentioned another boy with a disability who was constantly harassed by staff. They said they would try to look out for him while they were there.
One staff member “would pick on him so bad it made me want to cry,” Griffin said.
During workouts in the gym one day, Griffin said, the boy didn’t understand an order to do “egg rolls,” which are similar to somersaults. As the boy lay on his stomach, Griffin said, the staff member “grabbed him by the back of the ankles and then flipped his legs over his head and his back slammed down. He did that all the way from the baseline of the gym to the other baseline and back four times. He just full-on slammed him on the ground.”
The boy always had bruises on him, Griffin said.
“No matter what day it was, he was always in some form of pain.”
The treatment was so regular, Griffin said, that there was a letter on the wall showing where he was supposed to stand with his head against the wall — a typical form of punishment. He “had to stand on the wall 12 hours a day.”
Francis said he became good friends with that student and now constantly thinks of him and hopes he’s doing OK at the school.
It was back in March when Francis left the school that he last saw him and many others still at Agape.
Francis was 18 then and just days from graduating. He said he and another student got in trouble for watching the Video Music Awards on television and were going to lose privileges. Tired of “all the rules and hypocrisy,” he said, they decided to leave Agape the next morning.
Bryan Clemensen drove them to a gas station in Joplin and left them, Francis said.
“No money, no ID,” he said. “And he just hopped back in the car and drove away and let us try and figure everything out.”
The boys started walking and came across the Joplin Family Worship Center, he said. The pastor got them some clothes and food and took them to a homeless shelter. He picked them up the next morning and gave them each a prepaid phone, which they used to contact the other boy’s mother.
Francis said the compassion the pastor showed them was something they hadn’t experienced at Agape.
“Agape was always telling you how much wrong you were doing and what you needed to do right,” he said. “At that church, it was more like, ‘Yes, you might be doing this wrong and might be doing that wrong, but think of what you are doing right, and here’s ways of doing it right. If you’re not perfect, it’s OK. There’s ways to get there.’ Agape was always like, ‘If you don’t do this good, then you’re not worth it.’”
Other students, including Griffin, who had returned home a week or two before the others decided to leave, heard about how Francis and his friend were dropped in Joplin with nothing.
And “one of the most heartbreaking things” about that incident, Griffin said, is that the student who left with Francis looked up to Bryan Clemensen and would defend him to the other boys. The day he dropped the two in Joplin, Clemensen didn’t say anything to that student, Griffin said.
Every night, while at home in southeast Missouri, Griffin takes out his Bible to read. One positive thing about Agape, he said, is how often he was able to read the Bible. He thinks he read it more than one time through while he was at the school.
Inside his Bible now, he has the names of every student who was at the school with him. He figures he has about 160 names written down.
“I pray for them every night. Almost everybody there,” Griffin said. “My God told me that I can’t discriminate.
“Even if I hated the people, I still pray for them. Because it’s the right thing to do.”