JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A Missouri lawmaker wants more state oversight on religious boarding schools after continued claims of abuse.
Currently, in Missouri, religious boarding school do not have to be licensed. Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-St. Louis, wants the governor to expand his call for a special session to require all residential care facilities to get licensed with the state.
“I’m sorry that we as a state have allowed this to happen for so many years,” Unsicker said at a press conference Thursday.
Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation that allowed the Department of Social Services (DSS) oversight of unlicensed residential care facilities like background checks, but it did not require them to get licensed.
“Schools would not be allowed to operate without a license and the Children’s Division could revoke the license for things like abuse that’s been happening at Agape,” Unsicker said.
Agape Boarding School is in southwest Missouri and according to its website, it’s for troubled teenage boys. Earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a motion to close the school due to a safety concern for children who live there.
According to the petition, the State of Missouri and Schmitt believe that children should be removed from the school for four reasons:
- Reports from students about abuse and neglect from current students.
- Corroborating reports from former students.
- Staff members were found by the Missouri Department of Social Service to have committed abuse against the students with one staff member facing criminal charges.
- Employees had not completed mandatory criminal background checks.
“The allegations are that they are still abusing children,” Unsicker said. “There are Children’s Division workers in the facility 24 hours a day right now just to keep those children safe.”
Unsicker’s legislation would require the state to regulate all boarding schools. The bill would give authority to the state’s Children’s Division to revoke a school’s license if it found the school was allowing abuse.
“As long as the licensing regulations are not aimed at religion, then they can’t require the schools to be licensed,” Unsicker said. “As you can see with Agape, they are fighting every single step of the way and a year and half after that bill passed, they’re still running a facility.”
Earlier this week, Republicans House Speaker Rob Vescovo from Arnold, sent a letter to a U.S. attorney asking the office to intervene and shut down Agape. He also tweeted saying he refuses to “turn a blind eye,” and started a tweet-storm with the hashtag “#ShutDownAgape.”
Multiple other lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, also voiced their support for Vescovo’s call for Agape to be shut down.
“The allegations against Agape are horrific,” Unsicker said. “Slamming children into walls, placing children in handcuffs for days or weeks on end, and restraining children by holding them down on broken glass. People affiliated with Agape have been charged with federal and state crimes, and now Agape is using court proceedings and playing a corporate shell game to hide from the law.”
An attorney for the school told a Missouri judge in September, there was no proof that there was any immediate concern for the student’s safety. Last year, the former school’s physician, David Smock was arrested in Arkansas on eight felony charges that included sexual misconduct involving a child, first-degree statutory sodomy, second-degree attempted statutory sodomy, fourth-degree child molestation, and stalking.
Judge David Munton said in Sept. 12 the school could stay open as long as it was monitored around the clock. Five other employees at Agape were charged with felony assault charges in September of 2021.
This week, there was a change of judge in the case after a request from Schmitt’s office. Hearings are set for Oct. 13 and 14.
Gov. Mike Parson has previously said he does not plan to expand the call for a special session. Unsicker said she is prepared to file the legislation again for regular session which starts in January.