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Top Missouri lawmaker urges federal prosecutors to intervene in Agape abuse case

 Missouri House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, is asking federal prosecutors to get involved in the investigation of Agape Boarding School.
Tim Bommel
/
Missouri House Communications
Missouri House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, is asking federal prosecutors to get involved in the investigation of Agape Boarding School.

Missouri’s highest ranking legislator is asking federal prosecutors to intervene and shut down Agape Boarding School, alleging “undeniable corruption” and “inaction” by local officials who he says “could do the right thing and have consistently chosen not to.”

House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, made his request last Wednesday in a letter to Teresa Moore, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

The Missouri Independent obtained the letter through a request under Missouri’s open records laws.

Stockton-based Agape is a Christian reform school which has faced mounting allegations of physical and sexual abuse by former students.

In recent weeks, the state Department of Social Services and the attorney general’s office have sought to have the school shut down, claiming a systemic pattern of abuse at the school, which they allege poses immediate health or safety concerns to current students. The case has drawn out over weeks and is currently on pause after the state won a motion to stay the proceedings Friday, arguing they received new information that could change their claims and proposed remedies in the case.

As evidence the federal government should intervene, Vescovo pointed to recent reports of a minor being forcibly taken across state lines to the school by a transport company “that employs Cedar County Sheriff’s Deputies,” and referred to a broader pattern of children being transported to the school and then subject to abuse.

“It is appropriate for federal investigation and prosecution to take the next important steps to put an end to what amounts to child trafficking,” Vescovo wrote.

The legislature has gone to “exhaustive lengths,” Vescovo wrote, to address abuse allegations against Agape, but nonetheless, “putting a stop to the heinous acts that continue to take place at Agape has remained an unobtainable goal.”

For one, Vescovo wrote, progress was stymied by the “inaction” of the local prosecutor.

Last year, Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither pursued only a fraction of the 65 criminal counts recommended by Attorney General Eric Schmitt against 22 Agape staff members. The Kansas City Star has investigated ties between Agape and Cedar County law enforcement, including sheriff’s deputies who worked at Agape.

Gaither’s inaction, Vescovo wrote to the U.S. attorney, “raises serious concerns about the undeniable corruption that is taking place at the local level.”

“The prosecutor is just one more in a long line of local officials who have either turned a blind eye to, or helped to cover up, the criminal actions of the staff at Agape,” Vescovo added.

Gaither declined to comment, saying he hadn’t seen Vescovo’s letter.

A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment and said the Department of Justice cannot confirm or deny the existence of an investigation until charges are publicly filed.

The “inaction” of local officials, Vescovo wrote, “has helped perpetuate a culture of abuse at Agape.”

Vescovo also called out Cedar County Circuit Judge David Munton, who is currently presiding over the state’s case against Agape. Vescovo alleges Munton has “refused to shut the school down despite the overwhelming evidence that abuse has occurred there frequently and continues to occur today.”

Munton could not be reached Friday for comment.

The “inaction” of local officials, Vescovo wrote, “has helped perpetuate a culture of abuse at Agape, and contributed to a larger, darker network that has served to traffic children to other schools in Missouri and across state lines.”

Agape’s attorney, John Schultz, said the allegations in Vescovo’s letter against Agape are false.

“Those boys are watched 24/7 by multiple adults,” Schultz said. “For some lawmaker to make those claims, that borders on slanderous. Those are outrageous comments that have no basis in fact or truth.”

A spokesperson for the attorney general, reached Friday, declined to comment on Vescovo’s letter.

Vescovo wrote that “despite the state’s best efforts…federal assistance is necessary to protect the health and well-being of the many children who still attend the school, and to seek justice for the many more who have suffered unspeakable abuse there.”

“For too long this school has found a way to remain open by exploiting loopholes at the state level and cultivating relationships at the local level,” he added.

A law passed by the legislature that went into effect last year granted the attorney general’s office and Department of Social Services, as well as county prosecuting or circuit attorneys, the authority to seek injunctive relief to cease the operation of a residential care facility, and provide for appropriate removal of children in certain instances. In one provision, the state can act in the instance of “immediate health or safety concern” for the children there.

Earlier this month, the state filed for injunction at Agape. Munton originally ordered the school shut down but shortly thereafter put his order on pause and decided to hold a hearing because the staff member the state alleged of abuse had already been terminated.

Since the initial delay, the state has attempted to file two additional amended petitions alleging more widespread abuse, including from current students.

“The state continues to make reckless statements to the press but when it comes to proving their case in court they cannot do it." Agape Boarding School attorney John Schultz

The next hearing was originally scheduled for Monday morning but was delayed indefinitely on Friday. The attorney general’s office requested that the hearing be put on hold to review new information it has received.

That information included updated census details on Agape’s student body and staff, including that at least 12 staff members listed on the previous census would no longer be working there by Monday and that the school’s format will transition to “five group homes” Tuesday, “away from a boarding school type-facility.” The information was allegedly related from Agape’s director to a Department of Social Services staff member.

Separately, the state learned that “two individuals currently listed on the Agapé employee list” had incorporated a new license-exempt residential facility, called Stone of Help, described as a “Home for Troubled Youth” with an address “on the Agapé property and adjacent to the current Agapé Boarding School,” the motion states.

“The state will not allow Agapé to escape accountability or continue to present an immediate health and safety concern to children through corporate shell games while employing the same people and methods that originally led the State to bring this action to protect children,” the state wrote.

Schultz told the state, about Stone of Help, that it was the “first [he] heard of it,” according to the motion, and he provided no further information specific to that development in an interview Friday.

“The state continues to make reckless statements to the press but when it comes to proving their case in court they cannot do it,” he said.

Schultz speculated that the reason the state stayed their order was because they were “not ready to prevail on Monday on the first amended petition.”

Missouri Children’s Division staff will continue to have 24/7 access to the facility, a spokesperson for the Attorney General confirmed Friday.
This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent. She previously worked for the Nevada Current, where she reported on labor violations in casinos, hurdles facing applicants for unemployment benefits and lax oversight of the funeral industry. She also wrote about vocational education for Democracy Journal. Bates is a graduate of Harvard College and a member of the Report for America Corps.

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