(Missouri Independent) – Missouri investigators over the last four months have substantiated 10 claims of physical abuse at Agape Boarding School, a Christian reform school in Stockton that faces mounting accusations of abuse, lawsuits, and calls for its closure by former students.
According to records turned over to The Independent under Missouri’s Sunshine Law by the state Department of Social Services, all 10 substantiated preponderance of evidence claims against Agape involved findings of physical abuse. Those 10 substantiated claims are the only ones reported by the state since 2006.
The form provided by DSS lists only the number of findings and the type: Medical, neglect, physical and sexual.
DSS said the findings could represent “multiple perpetrators as well as multiple findings against the same perpetrator, or a combination” and did not respond to questions regarding whether the allegations contained in the findings were themselves new, or whether the state was investigating older claims.
DSS did say that although they are not authorized to disclose the alleged perpetrators, “we now have laws to prohibit ineligible employees” and others from working at unlicensed facilities.
Once DSS makes a finding of child abuse or neglect, the alleged perpetrator is notified and can exhaust their administrative appeal rights before finally being listed in a central registry.
In previous testimony to state lawmakers, and in lawsuits filed in state and federal court, former Agape students have described being physically restrained, sexually abused, starved as a form of punishment, and taken off prescribed medications while reassured that “God would fix them.”
A lawyer for Agape did not respond to requests for comment.
The legislature passed a bill last year, which gives DSS increased oversight of the schools, requiring background checks and compliance with various health and safety standards and giving DSS as well as law enforcement or the prosecuting attorney, the ability to file for an injunction to close the school.
“I have a lot of concern about systemic issues at a facility that Children’s Division makes that amount of findings against, especially in such a short period of time,” said Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, who cosponsored the Residential Care Facility Notification Act and previously worked at Children’s Division.
DSS declined to comment on the status of any investigations into Agape, stating, “to date, no action has been taken against a facility under the Residential Care Facility Notification Act.”
The preponderance of evidence finding is an administrative finding which places an individual on a state registry — it is not a criminal finding. Law enforcement investigates and works with prosecutors who decide whether to file charges in criminal court.
To qualify as abuse in a preponderance of evidence claim, the following five criteria must be met: The alleged victim was under 18 at the time of the reported incident, the alleged perpetrator was responsible for the care and custody of the alleged victim; there was a physical injury, sexual abuse, and/or emotional abuse; the injury was not accidental; and, the physical injury was “not the result of spanking” or other forms of discipline “administered in a reasonable manner.”
Only individuals whose determinations are final are placed on the central registry, according to the DSS manual. That means the number DSS provided does not include any ongoing determinations in which alleged perpetrators have requested appeals, the administrative review process is ongoing, or the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board has not yet upheld the preliminary finding, according to the manual.
Ingle said the number of substantiated investigations shows “the department is paying attention and doing their due diligence,” and she hopes they will “continue to ensure kids are safe there.”
“If not,” Ingle said, “we’ve given them the tools to file an injunction to close the facility down.”
A federal indictment
DSS’ release of information on claims of abuse at Agape comes just days after news broke that the school’s former dean was indicted by federal prosecutors.
Federal prosecutors said Wednesday that Julio Sandoval, former dean of Agape Boarding School and owner of a transport business to bring children to boarding schools, was indicted for violating a protection order. He allegedly arranged for a boy to be transported from Fresno, California to Stockton, Missouri against his will.
The boy had an active protection order against his mother, according to the indictment, and she allegedly worked with Sandoval, who arranged for the child to be brought in a 27-hour-long journey, handcuffed, to Agape.
According to the Kansas City Star, Sandoval worked at Agape until last fall, when he left to work at another unlicensed facility.
He could face a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Sandoval’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.