A Missouri bill that would mandate more state oversight on religious boarding schools, such as the Agape Boarding School, is unlikely to pass despite numerous calls from lawmakers to have the school shut down.
The bill, filed last week by state Rep. Sarah Unsicker, a Shrewsbury Democrat, would require all residential care facilities to get licenses with the state in the wake of numerous allegations of abuse at Agape and the Circle of Hope Girls Ranch. Religious boarding schools are currently exempt from state licensing.
Unsicker’s bill, which has not been scheduled for a hearing, is not within the scope of the Republican-dominated General Assembly’s special session on tax cuts. Republican Gov. Mike Parson has previously refused to expand the session to include other issues.
Parson’s silence on the proposal and the legislature’s inaction runs counter to public statements from several lawmakers who took to social media Wednesday to call for Agape to be shut down.
Unsicker told reporters Thursday that she’s tried to talk with Parson about the bill, but he’s been unavailable. She also said she hasn’t received any help or promises from House Speaker Rob Vescovo, an Arnold Republican who would be in charge of getting the bill to the floor for a vote.
Vescovo has been outspoken about closing down Agape, but has remained silent on Unsicker’s bill. Earlier this week, he wrote to U.S. Attorney Teresa Moore of the Western District of Missouri insisting that federal intervention may be the only way to protect students at Agape.
Vescovo’s letter asked the U.S. Attorney to “act immediately” to shut down the school, saying it has been engaged in “organized crime against children.”
Unsicker said when she spoke with Vescovo about the bill, he told her he’d look at it but made no commitments.
“That’s it,” she said.
“I’m disappointed with the disagreements,” Unsicker told The Star. “I think some of the energy to shut down this school is maybe an attempt to save the other schools from having to be regulated.”
A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday about whether he supported the legislation and would expand the session. Vescovo also did not respond.
Vescovo started a tweetstorm from lawmakers Wednesday when he used the hashtag “#ShutAgapeDown.”
I refuse to turn a blind eye! Let’s call out the corruption that has allowed this organized crime against children to persist. We must stand and defend those who have been victimized and make every effort to prevent this “school” from creating more victims. We must #ShutDownAgape pic.twitter.com/Q4syiUQshg
— Rob Vescovo (@RobVescovo) September 28, 2022
“I refuse to turn a blind eye! Let’s call out the corruption that has allowed this organized crime against children to persist,” Vescovo’s tweet said. It included video clips from news reports about abuse allegations at Agape.
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat, replied to Vescovo’s tweet, saying “This isn’t partisan. It’s past time.” In a text to The Star, Quade said she supported Unsicker’s bill.
Republican lawmakers, including the official account for the House GOP, also voiced support for Vescovo’s call for the school to be shut down.
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, thanked the House leader for “using your platform to stand up for these kids.” Rowden did not respond to a request for comment.
Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, a Sikeston Republican, tweeted, “We have the actual safety of children caught in a bizarre judicial cycle. How many victims must we have before they are protected? #shutdownagape.” She did not respond to a request for comment about the bill.
Unsicker’s bill further builds upon legislation passed in 2021 that gave DSS oversight over unlicensed residential care facilities. That oversight includes background checks for employees and gives the attorney general power to shut down facilities that fail to maintain a safe environment for children.
However, the 2021 legislation did not require religious boarding schools to get licensed with the state. Under the new bill, religious boarding schools wouldn’t be allowed to operate without a license. The state’s Children’s Division could also revoke a school’s license if it found the school was allowing abuse.
During a news conference in Jefferson City on Thursday, Unsicker said that the disagreements over her bill likely stem from concerns about whether unlicensed schools and religious schools should be required to get licensed.
“The dispute is whether to license them and I know these schools do not want to be licensed,” she said. “It needs to be discussed now and we need to be licensing these schools.”
Unsicker later told The Star that although her bill faces long odds during the legislature’s special session, she plans to refile the bill during the next regular session if it doesn’t pass.
“It wasn’t in the governor’s call, but this is the time to bring it up with everything that’s going on — I wanted to bring attention to it,” she said.
Emily Adams, a former student who attended Bethesda School for Girls in Mississippi before it was shut down for facilitating abuse, also spoke about the legislation during Thursday’s news conference.
“We were tortured in Mississippi and now we have to watch the kids being tortured in Missouri,” she said. “We told you we were coming. We know that you’ve been in trouble and we’re here to get you out.”
Agape and Circle of Hope are among the numerous facilities The Star has examined in investigations into Missouri’s faith-based reform schools.
Students who attended Agape in their youth have told The Star they were subjected to physical restraints, extreme workouts and long days of manual labor with food and water withheld as punishment. They said students suffered constant berating and some were physically and sexually abused by staff and other kids.
Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in Cedar County operated from 2006 until it closed in September 2020 amid allegations of abuse, multiple lawsuits from former students and an ongoing investigation by local and state officials.
For the better part of this month, the Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office and the Department of Social Services have tried to shut down Agape, the embattled southwest Missouri school that is alleged to have facilitated systemic abuse of children. On Sept. 7, the two agencies filed a motion for “injunctive relief” saying the safety of students inside the school was in jeopardy.
Officials had learned that a current staffer had just been placed on the Central Registry for Child Abuse and Neglect.