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Lawsuit alleges ‘peonage, slavery, and trafficking’ at Agape Boarding School

The federal courthouse in Springfield, Missouri.
Michele Skalicky/KSMU
The federal courthouse in Springfield, Missouri.

In recent days, a Christian boarding school for boys based in southwest Missouri became the target of a new lawsuit with severe child abuse allegations. Defendants include the local county sheriff.

Rebecca Randles is a Kansas City attorney. She represents a plaintiff known in court documents by his initials, P.H.

"He wants to bring light to the abuses that are happening in these places, and try to stop it," Randles says.

P. H. is a former student of Agape Boarding School. He’s seeking compensatory, statutory and punitive damages from the school and seven co-defendants.

Agape operated in different locations for three decades — most recently in Stockton, Missouri — before reportedly closing early last year. P. H. was 16 years old when he was sent to the school by his aunt and uncle, according to the lawsuit.

Previously, P. H. engaged in what the lawsuit called “minor teenage rebellion” like smoking marijuana. More recently, he’s joined the ranks of numerous civil plaintiffs and former students who allege adults linked to Agape abused them physically, sexually and emotionally.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests recently called the P.H. lawsuit “unprecedented.” Randles says the term largely applies. That’s because of a change approved by Congress and President Biden almost two years ago. It affects a longstanding federal law: the Wilberforce Trafficking Act.

"Peonage means slavery," Randles says, describing a key prohibition under the law. "And that means that you've been doing hard labor or uncompensated labor or labor under extreme duress or under physical or sexual violence.”

Since 2022, the statute of limitations for abuses covered by the Wilberforce Trafficking Act has been removed, meaning anyone with a claim from when they were 28 years old or younger back in 2022 can likely bring a lawsuit against alleged abusers.

The P. H. lawsuit names Agape Boarding School, its owner, and several staffers as defendants. It also names Cedar County Sheriff James McCrary as a defendant. That’s because the plaintiff — like other former Agape students who attended the school as children — says Agape Boarding School employed at least two staffers who also worked in local law enforcement. These small-town social ties made it hard for kids alleging they were abused to seek accountability, according to the lawsuit.

Randles says, “When you have that kind of inherent conflict — where you've got the aggressors also being the ones who are investigating — that's really the issue. Because there was no place for these children to go. They couldn't go to law enforcement because who would they be going to? The people who are abusing them at Agape. Law enforcement then had a policy or practice of returning kids back to Agape without sending any reports to DFS.”

Since the lawsuit was filed May 16, Ozarks Public Radio repeatedly sought interviews with defendants and their lawyers. Federal court records showed no defense attorneys on file in the case as of Thursday afternoon.

But an attorney who previously represented the sheriff in a similar case — and another lawyer who previously represented one of the Agape staffers — both said they couldn’t comment on pending litigation. A staffer in the sheriff’s office also told Ozarks Public Radio by email that Sheriff McCrary wasn’t available for comment on Thursday ahead of the holiday weekend.

Along with conflict of interest, the lawsuit alleges the Cedar County Sheriff refused to investigate abuse allegations and fraudulently concealed them. It also asserts that the sheriff’s office violated the constitutional rights of students, including P. H.

Randles uses terms like “brainwashing” and “Stockholm syndrome” to describe students including P. H. According to the lawsuit, students were forced by adult staffers to abuse other students. The lawsuit characterizes Agape as a “torture colony” that was “perversely cloaked in the guise of religion."

Of Agape's students, Randles says, the school "was crazy-making in many regards where they were required to hurt or be hurt.”

P.H. alleges bullying and abuse started immediately after his arrival.

You can report suspected human trafficking and other violations of the Wilberforce Trafficking Act to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. That’s a federal 24-hour toll-free hotline in English, Spanish and 200 other languages. Call 1-888-373-7888 or visit

In urgent situations, the office of Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey advises calling 911 to alert local law enforcement.

Gregory Holman is a KSMU reporter and editor focusing on public affairs.