Missouri candidates face criticism over ties to religious schools where students allege abuse
Former boarding school students are making noise about politicians and elected officials with connections to unlicensed religious reform schools, state-contracted youth residential facilities and summer camps that have faced allegations of abuse and neglect.
At first, Robert Bucklin was optimistic.
A former student of Agape Boarding School in Stockton, Bucklin is among numerous students who have accused the Christian boarding school and its staff of physical and sexual abuse.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt launched an investigation into the school and ultimately recommended 65 criminal counts against 22 staff. The charges involved 36 victims and reached up to Class B felonies for abuse of a child. Schmitt’s office even asked a judge to empanel a special grand jury to hear evidence.
But Bucklin’s hopes quickly faded when Ty Gaither, the Cedar County prosecuting attorney, chose to only file a combined 13 counts of third-degree felony assault — the lowest felony class — against five staffers of the school. As a result, Schmitt asked Gov. Mike Parson last year to take his office off the case.
Bucklin, who is suing Agape, has been outspoken ever since.
He publicly decried Gaither’s decision, going as far as filing a bar complaint against the prosecuting attorney, and has been critical of Schmitt for not doing more to shut down the school. His criticism soon extended to Parson, who he noted has longstanding ties to several boarding schools that have come under scrutiny in southern Missouri.
And Bucklin is not alone.
With Missouri’s primary election less than two weeks away, former boarding school students, activists and candidates have begun making noise about politicians and elected officials with connections to unlicensed religious reform schools, state-contracted youth residential facilities and summer camps that have faced allegations of abuse and neglect.
Relationships that were uncontroversial for years are now earning scorn from those who say elected officials have for too long turned a blind eye to allegations of abuse, with past associations and campaign contributions coming under new scrutiny.
“If you have these ties to places that abused children, you frankly shouldn’t be in office,” said Taylor Burks, a Republican running to replace Vicky Hartzler in the 4th Congressional District.
Bucklin, now 28 and living in Michigan, said former students who suffered abuse shouldn’t be forced to lead the charge against their abusers.
“As a victim of sexual and physical abuse myself at the school, I shouldn’t be fighting harder than the attorney general,” Bucklin said of Schmitt, who is now running for U.S. Senate.
‘Take all the legs out from under the chair’
Among the horrors he says he endured during his time at Agape as a teenager in the late 2000s, Bucklin says he was restrained on the ground for over an hour at a time despite the school’s claims it only employs restraints for a few minutes.
In letters to his parents when Bucklin was between 13 and 16 years old, he wrote in scratchy scrawl that he couldn’t stand to be at Agape much longer.
“I hate life,” he wrote. “I don’t want to be here. I wish I was never born.”
“Sometimes I feel like I get treated like a dead rat or something of that kind,” he went on to write.
Affixed to the letter was a yellow post-it note that read: “You need to read this letter. There is a lot that needs to be changed.” The note was written by a staff member of Agape, Bucklin said. An undated incident report said a letter was confiscated and Bucklin was asked to rewrite it.
“The letter is filled with lies that Robert needs to correct,” the report signed by a staffer said, which was provided to The Independent and obtained through the discovery process in Bucklin’s ongoing lawsuit against the school.
Bucklin’s desperation to get anyone to help stop the abuse he says he suffered has been reignited as he works to bring public pressure on Schmitt and Missouri officials to do more to close Agape.
When Bucklin calls and emails the attorney general’s office, he said, “I send like five or six emails before they respond back.”
So he’s resorted to filing open records requests with Schmitt’s office, and in a recent email to the attorney general’s office, Bucklin wrote that it seems as if victims have been abandoned.
Bucklin argues Schmitt has the authority to shut down the school under a recent law passed last year that requires unlicensed facilities to register with the state and establishes a process by which children can be removed in instances of suspected abuse or neglect.
In a response to the bar complaint Bucklin submitted against Gaither, the Cedar County prosecutor wrote that under state law Schmitt’s office is authorized to request a hearing in front of a juvenile judge in order to determine if reasonable cause exists to shut down a facility.
Schmitt has not done so, Gaither wrote in his March letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Independent.
Reached Tuesday, Gaither declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation into Agape. The bar complaint process is ongoing.
A spokesman for Schmitt’s office declined to comment and did not clarify if Schmitt has considered taking action to remove students. Schmitt’s Senate campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for Parson did not respond to a request for comment on Bucklin’s criticisms.
James Griffey, who attended Agape as a student from 1998 to 2001 and left in 2002 after working on staff, said it’s demoralizing to feel like so little is being done to close the school.
“Here we are, still a year later, and Agape — the poster child for all these schools — is still open, even though there’s all these allegations of abuse going on. All these court cases, video. It’s like, what more do you need to shut this place down?” said Griffey, who is now 39 and lives in California.
Colton Schrag, who testified before lawmakers last year about the abuse he endured while at Agape, said he felt if Schmitt had the authority to pursue the recommended charges in Agape’s case, he would have.
“I’m not mad at him,” said Schrag, who is now 30 and living in Texas. “I just think he could push the matter a little bit further if he really wanted to.”
Ultimately, officials should be pushing to protect kids at all costs, Schrag said.
“We’ve heard multiple people say the same thing from different generations,” Schrag said of former Agape students’ allegations. “I mean, what’s the common denominator? It’s not these boys. It’s the place they went to.”
Agape is the second unlicensed, religious reform school in southwest Missouri that Schmitt’s office has assisted Gaither in investigating.
In the case of the now-closed Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in Humansville, Schmitt was appointed by Parson as special prosecutor in 2020. The school’s owners, Stephanie and Boyd Householder, face nearly 100 felony charges for statutory rape, child abuse and neglect. A trial is set to begin in November 2023.
The owners of the school had long standing connections to state lawmakers in southwest Missouri. Emails obtained by The Independent previously showed the Householders kept lawmakers apprised of local law enforcement and child protective services investigations, relayed allegations of abuse and shared positive testimonials from students and parents.
In response, lawmakers offered their assistance and advocated on behalf of the school to the Department of Social Services.
Allegations of abuse at religious reform schools in Missouri have persisted for decades. However, it wasn’t until the last two years that both Circle of Hope and Agape were thrust into the limelight following a series of investigations by The Kansas City Star and a legislative inquiry by Missouri lawmakers.
Unlike the case against Circle of Hope Girls Ranch, Gaither has retained authority on whether to issue charges related to Agape.
In the race for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat, Democratic candidate Spencer Toder has worked with Bucklin to convince national organizations, like the National Council for Private School Accreditation and Association of Christian Teachers & Schools, to rescind their accreditations of Agape. Toder said he also plans to target ads toward parents who visit the school in order to warn them about past students’ allegations.
Neither Agape nor an attorney for the school responded to requests for comment.
“Our goal,” Toder said, “is to take all the legs out from under the chair that is Agape.”
Longstanding ties to other youth residential facilities and camps across the state have come under renewed scrutiny leading up to the Aug. 2 primaries.
U.S. Rep Vicky Hartzler who, like Schmitt, is running for U.S. Senate, received a campaign contribution of $5,000 last year from Debbie Jo White. Along with her husband, Joe White, Debbie Jo runs Kanakuk Kamps, a Branson-based Christian summer camp under scrutiny for sexual abuse of campers.
The camp was first embroiled in scandal over a decade ago. Kanakuk camp counselor and director, Peter Newman, pled guilty in 2010 to seven counts of sexual abuse. A civil suit alleges he abused upward of 50 children, and the prosecutor said Newman’s victim count might be in the hundreds. Many plaintiffs in civil suits signed non-disclosure agreements, so the full scope of the abuse remains unknown.
Newman is now serving two life sentences plus 30 years in prison.
In the last year, the case has received significant national attention, after an investigation into the camp’s history by journalists Nancy and David French.
Scores of former campers have filed lawsuits, including alleging that Kanakuk leadership received several complaints about Newman’s inappropriate conduct in the decade preceding his arrest. CEO Joe White denies these allegations, calling Newman a “master of deception.”
The Whites have been politically active for decades. Debbie Jo White has donated a total of $16,500 to Hartzler’s campaigns since 2010, the year she first ran for the House seat. Joe White donated $1,400 to Hartzler’s campaign, between 2016 and 2020.
“There’s no scenario in which Vicky Hartzler would go and campaign on wanting children to be abused at a camp,” Toder said, “But there’s no scenario in which someone would take money in which that wasn’t something that they were okay with.”
Neither Hartzler’s campaign nor the Whites responded to requests for comment.
In the GOP primary to replace Hartzler in Congress, one candidate’s connections to a state-licensed youth residential facility that’s previously been entangled in allegations of abuse has become a source of criticism.
Home Court Advantage is a youth residential facility in Bolivar, which is contracted with the state to provide care to girls and boys between the ages of 8 and 21 who have psychiatric and behavioral issues.
Kalena Bruce, a certified public accountant who is running in the 4th Congressional District race, has been the registered agent for Home Court Advantage since 2017, according to business filings. She has also received donations from the facility’s owner, who also served on the host committee for an April fundraiser for Bruce that Parson also attended.
In 2017, the facility made headlines after a video surfaced depicting staff allegedly beating a student the year before. Intake was temporarily suspended at the facility as state officials launched an investigation.
Two facility staff were later sentenced to two years of probation, ordered to pay $300 to a county law enforcement restitution fund and do community service after pleading guilty to third degree assault and failure to report child abuse as a mandated reporter, according to the Bolivar Herald Free-Press. A civil suit brought by a former student was also dismissed in 2019 after a settlement was reached.
According to a list the Department of Social Services gave to state lawmakers last year, two of Home Court Advantages’ locations had five preponderance of evidence findings between 2015 to 2020 — three for neglect and two for physical abuse.
Jack McCrimmon, Home Court Advantage’s owner, previously told The Independent he recalled three incidents, but not five. He did not respond to a request for comment last week.
Bruce’s connection to Home Court Advantage drew a rebuke from Burks, who said “it’s incredibly disturbing” that facilities that have faced allegations of abuse exist in the 4th Congressional District. Voters, he said, need to know about politicians’ connections to them.
“It’s disgusting if there’s a candidate who has close business relationships with places that abuse children,” Burks said.
Growing up in the area, Bruce said she’s known of Home Court Advantage’s work, and interned at a business through college that did payroll and accounting work for them. When she opened up her own firm, she inherited their business.
Bruce said she never saw the video of the incident that arose in 2017, but that community members viewed it as an issue spawning from individual employees’ actions.
“Of course any individual in any organization or business that’s found responsible of wrongdoing should be held accountable,” Bruce said. “But to try to attack my character because of the actions of a few individuals who worked at one of my clients’ businesses is desperate, deceitful, and exactly what’s wrong with politics today.”
Bruce said over 19,000 kids have passed through Home Court Advantage over the past two decades, with 85% of those kids going on to graduate from high school, attend technical schools “and becoming contributing members of society.”
“Quite frankly, I’m proud of the work that this state-contracted organization does to provide a safe place for deeply troubled children,” Bruce said, noting that unlike Agape and Circle of Hope, state-licensed facilities like Home Court Advantage have to meet licensing requirements.
Bruce has also received donations from Gaither, the Cedar County prosecuting attorney. She said she couldn’t speak to the handling of Agape, and that the courts will come to the right decision.
Bucklin, who finds time to make calls and contact officials about Agape after long shifts at the hospital where he works, often wonders when the school’s doors will ever be shut. That, he said, is what will bring him peace of mind.
“To be silent is to take the side of those who have committed barbaric and heinous crimes against children,” Bucklin said. “At least say something.”
This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.