A Missouri boarding school already under scrutiny amid physical and sexual abuse allegations may soon be shut down, following a judge's ruling.
Cedar County Circuit Judge David Munton signed an order Wednesday night to close Agape Boarding School in Stockton after the Missouri attorney general's office and the state Department of Social Services filed petitions citing evidence that someone on the state registry for child abuse and neglect was actively working there.
But early Thursday, Munton stated in a court document that before closing the school he wanted the sheriff to confirm that the employee is still working at Agape. Officials have not said whether that's the case, and a hearing originally scheduled for Thursday to decide Agape's fate was postponed until Monday.
“Agape's employment of a staff member who is listed on the state’s Child Abuse/Neglect Central Registry presents an immediate health and safety concern for the children residing at Agape,” the petition from Attorney General Eric Schmitt's office stated. “This new development is sadly consistent with the dark pattern of behavior at Agape previously exposed by the Attorney General’s Office and DSS."
Agape's lawyer, John Schultz, said the school remains open. The judge noted in Missouri's online court filing system that the state and Agape agreed that two Children's Division workers will have access “to observe the children there” until the hearing occurs.
“My Office has continued to monitor and investigate this situation and when we learned that there was a clear violation of the law, we took swift and decisive action,” Schmitt said in a statement. “We have worked closely with DSS to put into place a Court ordered plan to allow constant on-site monitoring of the children at Agape by DSS to ensure their safety until the hearing is held.”
Munton's order, if carried out, would require the removal of all 63 boys at Agape, and require assessments of their health, safety and well-being.
Allegations of physical and sexual abuse at Agape and nearby Christian boarding school Circle of Hope Girls' Ranch prompted a state law last year requiring stricter oversight of such facilities. Among other things, the new law allows state or local authorities to petition the court for closure of a facility if there is believed to be an immediate health or safety threat to the children.
Last year, Agape’s longtime doctor, David Smock, was charged with child sex crimes and five employees were charged with low-level abuse counts. Schmitt's office contended that 22 workers should have been charged, and with more serious crimes. But in Missouri, only the local prosecutor can file charges, and Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither has said no additional employees would be charged.
Meanwhile, the husband-and-wife founders of Circle of Hope, Boyd and Stephanie Householder, face a combined 99 charges that include child abuse and neglect, sex crimes and other counts. The school was ordered shut down in 2020 amid the investigation.
Several lawsuits filed on behalf of former students also have named Agape and Circle of Hope.