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Legal loopholes allow abuse to go undetected at religious boarding schools, advocates say

At a Missouri Christian school for troubled teens, alumni say a gap in state law prevented inspections, enabling abuse to continue for decades.
Image: Illustration showing a collage of the Agape Ranch entrance sign with circles showing Allen Knoll and Colton Schrag.
Colton Schrag, left, and Allen Knoll attended Agapé Boarding School, a Christian facility in Missouri, where, they say, staff members prevented them from making complaints about mistreatment.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Colton Schrag remembers the night at the Agapé Boarding School when, he says, a staff member punched him in the face.

It was late on April 20, 2007, he said, and the staff at the all-boys boarding school in southwestern Missouri wanted him to confess that he and two other boys were going to try to run away. After Schrag, then 14, refused to answer their questions, he said, one of the employees knocked him to the ground, and then others held him facedown, pressing a knee into his back and head.

Once they were done, staff members took away Schrag’s clothes and bedding, he said, and made him wear only a bathrobe and his boxers for two months.

For more on this story, watch NBC's "Dateline" episode, "Broken Circle"

Schrag’s adoptive parents placed him in Agapé — which takes its name from the ancient Greek word Christians use to describe the love of God for humankind — hoping the program would help him deal with anger issues and disobedience. The program markets itself as a Christian school that “turns around rebellious boys.” Schrag’s parents said they were unaware of any abuse occurring at the facility; the school had promised close supervision and to redirect his anger in positive ways.

But instead of the therapeutic environment the school’s leaders promised, Schrag and 11 others who were sent to Agapé as children from the late 1990s up to last year, as well as four former staff members, told NBC News they saw Agapé workers hold boys down and hit them. Seven former students said staff members had assaulted them. Other punishments, the former students and staff members said, included forcing boys to stare at a wall for hours, limiting meals to peanut butter sandwiches, and requiring students to haul rocks outside from one pile to another.

“I just kind of felt like I was on my own,” said Schrag, 28, who now works in the oil industry in Texas. “For so long, nobody cared.”

Image: Colton Schrag outside the Agape Boarding School in Missouri.
Colton Schrag outside the Agapé Boarding School in Missouri.NBC News

Agapé did not respond to repeated requests for comment and interviews via phone, email and a letter left at the school’s reception desk.

Despite the concerns former students have raised recently, no state agency has the ability under Missouri law to regularly inspect how children at Agapé are treated. That's because Agapé is a religious school, which makes it exempt from the state rules governing secular boarding schools and children’s homes. Staff members at Agapé don't have to go through background checks, and the facility is not required to document how or why children are restrained.

And it’s not just Missouri. An investigation by NBC News and “Dateline” found that multiple states have similar gaps in the oversight of religious boarding schools, leaving children vulnerable to abuse. At least two other states — Montana and Arkansas — carve out licensing exemptions for religious facilities. And in at least 14 other states, education and child welfare agencies exempt boarding schools from licensing requirements if they are privately owned or privately funded.

The result, experts said, is that in much of the country, no one from the government checks to ensure that these facilities, often in remote regions, meet basic standards before children are enrolled.

“I'm not trying to reach for the moon on this stuff,” said Richard Fiene, a research psychologist who spent decades directing public welfare and child services agencies in Pennsylvania, “but I’d like to see kids in safe environments where they can’t be restrained and someone can't put a knee in their back and hold them to the floor where they can't breathe. That shouldn't be happening.”

“If not,” he added, “kids are going to wind up losing their lives.”

The reasoning for the exemptions varies, but states generally take a hands-off approach to oversight of privately funded schools, and officials fear stoking the anger of conservative voters. But many lawmakers are also oblivious to the consequences of lax oversight until there's a scandal.

In Missouri, at least, this could be changing. After abuse allegations at Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, a religious boarding school near Agapé, began spreading on TikTok last spring, the Cedar County Sheriff’s Department opened an investigation, which the state attorney general joined and is ongoing. After the state removed students from the school in August, Circle of Hope voluntarily shut down. The action galvanized Agapé alumni, as well, and they began telling their stories to local media and on podcasts. In November, Schrag joined close to two dozen men and women protesting outside Agapé, holding signs that read “Torture Is Not Treatment” and “Lies Won’t Protect You Anymore.”

The stories of abuse — told through reports by NBC News, the Kansas City Star and others — prompted Missouri lawmakers to hold hearings and propose legislation last month to ramp up state oversight. Alumni from Agapé and Circle of Hope feel the momentum is swinging in their direction.

“I don’t want another kid to have to go through what I went through,” Schrag said. “If I can save one kid, it’s worth it to me.”

‘A very scary place to be’

Jim and Kathy Clemensen — a married couple whom people call “Brother Clemensen” and “Ma’am” — started Agapé in the early 1990s. Jim Clemensen, a former California Highway Patrol officer, initially decided to open a group home in Stockton, California, before setting up Agapé on an old Air Force base in Othello, Washington. Child welfare officials in Washington cited Agapé for overcrowding and poor sanitation, according to a 1995 newspaper article.

In 1996, Agapé moved to a 200-acre ranch in Cedar County, Missouri. Clemensen picked the state specifically because of its lack of regulation, he told a reporter in 2002, and said the school would leave Missouri if required to get a license.

The boarding school typically has about 150 boys enrolled, ages 12 to 17, and they share the ranch with farm and exotic animals, including cows, horses, llamas, water buffalo, camels and zebras, according to the school’s website. For $3,250 in tuition per month, the school claims on its website that it can turn around “defiant and rebellious” boys through “spiritual growth.”

Parents, who are only allowed to visit with two weeks notice, are warned in the school handbook they should “never try and interfere with the policies or rules of Agapé Boarding School. These rules and policies are for their son's success and protection. If there is a question about a policy or rule, do not ask your son.”

The school is a nonprofit owned by the Agapé Baptist Church, which was also started by the Clemensens. The school follows a fundamentalist Baptist belief system, according to a 2002 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, and displayed a photo of the radio evangelist Lester Roloff, who died in a plane crash in 1982. Roloff was perhaps best known for starting boarding homes in the 1960s to reform youth he described as “parent-hating, Satan-worshipping, dope-taking immoral boys and girls,” utilizing corporal punishment and isolation for children who disobeyed.

"There wasn’t really any training."

James Clidence, former Agapé employee

Agapé’s handbook states it has a strict “hands-off” policy regarding the students, and does not use corporal punishment. The school states on its website that its staff are trained in “proper restraining tactics,” which are only used if a child is a threat to others and last for just a few minutes.

Some who attended and worked at the school said otherwise.

“There wasn’t really any training,” said James Clidence, a pastor who worked as a teacher at Agapé from 2012 to 2015. “I shadowed a staff member for about three days, we didn’t go over procedures, no restraint training, no discipline training — really no clear set of rules that the students weren’t allowed to break.”

It was not unusual for physical restraints to last four hours or longer, and leave bruises on the children, according to Clidence and three former students. Clidence said Agapé fired him in March 2015 when the school asked employees to sign a nondisparagement agreement, and he refused. (NBC News presented a copy of Clidence’s nondisparagement agreement to Agapé to confirm or dispute its authenticity, but the school did not respond.)

Former students said their communication with parents and local authorities was censored. Josh Bradney, 19, who attended Agapé from 2014 to 2016, said staff members slammed him to the ground when he told his parents on a phone call that Agapé employees hit another boy with a football helmet.

“It’s just a very scary place to be,” Bradney said.

The Missouri Department of Social Services does not conduct regular inspections of private religious schools, but child protective services and police can investigate if there is a specific abuse allegation reported.

Lucas Francis, 19, said he regularly witnessed staff members slam boys into walls and onto the ground when he attended Agapé from 2017 to 2020. Yet, when a social worker visited the school a year ago to follow up on a report that boys had been forced to run outside in the freezing temperatures and sleet, Francis said he claimed he’d never seen abuse at Agapé. Francis lied, he said, because Robert Graves — a Cedar County sheriff’s deputy who is on the board of Agapé’s church and has worked at the school — was present for the interview.

“I was scared I would get in trouble, and just make everything worse for me,” said Francis, whose account was first reported by the Kansas City Star.

Graves did not respond to a request for comment.

Cedar County Sheriff James “Jimbob” McCrary denied that Graves was present for interviews with students. McCrary said his office has received complaints about Agapé, and that they’ve all been investigated “as far as it could go.” He called Graves “a very good deputy.” McCrary said that he ensures there is no conflict of interest when investigating Agapé complaints by involving other agencies, like the social services department.

The Department of Social Services declined to comment on its investigations into Agapé and the interviews with students, and would not release records, but said that there have been no substantiated reports of abuse or neglect at the school.

At a hearing in the Missouri Legislature on Wednesday, a department official said it has been difficult to substantiate abuse allegations at religious boarding schools due to "a culture of restricted access."

"If you have children who are fearful that they're going to be sent back to these facilities, you see a lot of instances where children might recant their stories," said Caitlin Whaley, director of legislation for the department.

Lawmakers push to close the oversight gap

As soon as Keri Ingle, a Democratic state representative from the Kansas City, Missouri, area and former child welfare investigator, read about the abuse allegations at Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch last year, she called for hearings.

Circle of Hope was opened in 2006 by Boyd Householder, a former Agapé employee, as a school for rebellious teenage girls. In May, his daughter Amanda and women who attended Circle of Hope began posting videos on TikTok describing violent restraints, starvation and emotional abuse at the ranch. (Householder has denied that any abuse occurred at the ranch.)

The more Ingle learned about Circle of Hope, the more she came to believe that the problem wasn't limited to one school, but pointed to a systemic failure of state oversight.

People had reported Circle of Hope at least 19 times since it opened to three sheriff’s departments, state child welfare and education officials, the highway patrol, and the state attorney general’s office, according to interviews and records obtained by NBC News. The state social services department determined in a preliminary finding in 2018 that Householder physically abused a minor, according to court documents — but that was not publicized and the school continued to enroll students for more than two years before it voluntarily closed.

“The most surprising thing is that nothing has been done so far to change anything,” Ingle said.

Image: Keri Ingle
Missouri state Rep. Keri Ingle, a Kansas City-area Democrat and former child welfare investigator, is pushing for new oversight of schools for troubled teens.NBC News

For secular youth facilities regulated by Missouri’s social services department, as well as those that have contracts with the state, social welfare agents conduct inspections at least twice a year to review staff training, check compliance with fire and health codes, and make sure employees have background checks and that children get proper medical attention. They also look at records from any incidents in which a child is injured or restrained. None of these inspections are required at religious boarding schools.

The Missouri House Committee on Children and Families issued a report in November concluding that “there are numerous facilities in the state that have abused vulnerable children in their care, with no state oversight, for many years.” Still, it was only a partial picture, based on interviews with former students and information from state officials, because Missouri doesn’t keep track of how many religious boarding schools exist in the state.

"If you're using the Bible or God to justify any of these things, that is sacrilegious."

Missouri Rep. Keri Ingle

The committee is considering bills introduced by Ingle and a Republican colleague last month to give the Missouri Department of Social Services oversight of religious boarding schools. The legislation would require the schools to register with the state, and create paths for the state to conduct safety inspections of the facilities and shut them down after abuse allegations. It has not come up for a vote yet, but key Republicans in the Legislature have already signaled support.

“I can't find any scriptures in the Bible that would say that it's OK to physically or sexually abuse children, to starve them as means of punishment, to withhold medication, to deprive them of sleep, to force them into manual labor,” Ingle said. “If you're using the Bible or God to justify any of these things, that is sacrilegious. That is blasphemous.”

Licensing not required in many states

Lack of oversight is not limited to Missouri. For example, Arkansas allows boarding schools and child welfare agencies operated solely by a religious organization to be exempt from licensing.

Many other states, such as New Jersey, Oklahoma and Texas, do not require religious boarding schools to be licensed by education or child welfare authorities because they are privately owned or privately funded. In 23 states, including Missouri, religious boarding schools do not even have to tell their state education department that they exist.

Minnesota has even less control. Its education and human services departments do not license religious schools, or any private boarding schools, and child protective services does not have the authority to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect at them; instead, they must refer those reports to law enforcement. Child welfare experts say that makes it more difficult for a state to look into maltreatment, because police will only investigate what counts as a crime, rather than what places a child in danger.

“I for sure think it would be harder to bring charges, because then your standard of proof is going to be higher,” said Daniel Pollack, a social work professor at Yeshiva University.

But in some states that have tried to close this oversight gap in recent years, like Montana, lawmakers have met with resistance.

Montana carved out a religious exemption when it set up a new system for licensing youth facilities and reform schools in 2007. Ellie Hill Smith, a state lawmaker from Missoula, was concerned that this meant the state had no way of ensuring children were safe in these programs. But legislation she pushed for several years to require these programs to be licensed by the state the same way as secular facilities repeatedly failed to even get a vote.

“The only thing it would have done,” Smith said of her bill, “is require these adolescent facilities to have oversight by our Department of Public Health and Human Services, just like a senior citizen home or a barbershop.”

Montana officials testified at hearings they had “been frustrated by complaints registered against several programs that fell outside of regulation,” and that some — they didn’t say which — tried to avoid licensing by fraudulently claiming to be part of a church. Officials also said even if child protective services found that someone at a religious youth facility abused a child, there were no rules to prevent the person from continuing to work there.

But the bills essentially became a referendum on one unregulated facility, the Pinehaven Christian Children's Ranch in St. Ignatius, Montana, whose founder showed up to hearings with supporters to argue against the change. Robert Larsson, 89, a preacher and the founder of Pinehaven, gave folksy presentations about how his school improved the lives of children, who spent their days at the ranch wrangling calves, shoveling manure and learning Bible verses.

Several former Pinehaven students and staff members told CNN in 2012 that children were choked and assaulted at the ranch, accusations that Larsson denied and said were the work of Satan. The state Public Health and Human Services Department and the local sheriff did not fulfill NBC News’ records requests for information about any more recent complaints. Pinehaven did not respond to a request for comment.

The Montana Family Foundation, an anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage advocacy organization, lobbied against the proposals, as well, and Smith said their opposition scared lawmakers who didn’t want a negative mark on the conservative group’s legislative scorecard. The organization did not respond to requests for comment, but in presentations to the Legislature, the group repeatedly highlighted reports that children had been assaulted at secular youth facilities regulated by the state.

"Pinehaven has had challenges over the years, but so has everyone," Montana Family Foundation President Jeff Laszloffy said at a 2019 hearing. "I would argue Pinehaven is doing a very good job with very difficult kids."

A ‘template’ for the rest of the country

The law many former students of schools like Agapé see as a model comes from an unlikely state to scrap religious exemptions: Alabama. It took a disturbing criminal case to make it happen.

Until 2017, Alabama’s Religious Freedom Amendment shielded boarding schools such as the Restoration Youth Academy and its sister facility, the Saving Youth Foundation, from government oversight. Children said pastors and staff members at both facilities choked and punched them, kept them in solitary confinement, handcuffed them to beds and forced them to box each other.

But under state law at the time, the schools didn’t have to tell the government they existed, and it took years of complaints before child welfare officials shut down their operations in 2015, and prosecutors charged the owners and a counselor at the facilities with aggravated child abuse. The three were convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Image: Allen Knoll
Allen Knoll, who attended Agapé from 1999 to 2001, hopes more states will add oversight of schools for troubled teens.NBC News

In the aftermath of the criminal case, the state enacted the Alabama Youth Residential Facility Abuse Prevention Act in 2017. The Republican-sponsored measure requires religious boarding schools to register with the state, pass a health department inspection and ensure that staff meet minimum standards. It also lays out a set of children’s rights, banning corporal punishment and verbal and emotional abuse, and giving youth the ability to call their parents whenever they want.

Allen Knoll, who attended Agapé from 1999 to 2001, looks at Alabama’s law as “a template of what we can do across the country.” The only thing that has held back change in Missouri, he said, is a lack of public knowledge about what goes on inside these schools.

“It won't be long here in Missouri,” he said. “I believe the community is aware. We want to make it about the children's rights rather than taking away religious rights. And that's what it's all about.”

UPDATE (Feb. 12, 2021, 2:33 p.m. ET): After publication of this article, Cedar County Sheriff James “Jimbob” McCrary disputed an account by former Agapé student Lucas Francis. Francis said that Robert Graves, a Cedar County sheriff’s deputy who had worked at Agapé, sat in on a meeting Francis had with a social worker who was looking into abuse allegations at the school. McCrary said in an email on Friday that Graves was not present for social workers’ interviews with students.