Missouri boarding school closes as state agency examines how it responded to abuse claims

A rural Missouri boarding school at the center of abuse allegations has closed its doors, and a state agency is trying to determine if it adequately responded to previous concerns about the facility in calls to an abuse hotline.

The closure of ABM Ministries’ Lighthouse Christian Academy in Piedmont, Missouri, follows criminal charges filed earlier this month against owners Larry Musgrave Jr., 57, his 64-year-old wife, Carmen Musgrave, and a teacher, Caleb Sandoval, 22. The Musgraves were charged with first-degree kidnapping for allegedly locking a student in a room. Sandoval was charged with abuse or neglect of a child, accused of injuring a 15-year-old boy while boxing.

The Musgraves and Sandoval all face court hearings next month. Phone messages were left Wednesday with their attorneys.

“As of March 6th @ 5:00pm, 2024 ABM is officially closed. All staff have also been dismissed,” ABM wrote in a letter to the Missouri Department of Social Services. Agency spokeswoman Baylee Watts provided a copy of the letter to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Watts said in an email that the Department of Social Services is looking at “the handling of the complaints to the Child Abuse & Neglect Hotline.” She didn’t elaborate or offer a timetable for the internal inquiry. Former ABM students have said they’ve been raising concerns for years, to no avail.

ABM Ministries operated the private Christian boarding school for boys in Wayne County, about 130 miles (209 kilometers) south of St. Louis. Its website claimed success in helping boys who were troubled, learning-impaired or dealing with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or other disorders. The website is now shut down.

Sheriff Dean Finch began investigating several months ago after a former student living in Alabama contacted him. The Musgraves are accused of keeping that student locked in a small room against her will nearly two decades ago, at a time when the school served both girls and boys.

The alleged victim in that case, Juliana Davis, now 34, said the closure of the school is “validating” and something she had hoped to see since her days as a student.

“Every day we woke up there, we hoped that somebody was going to barge in and shut it down and keep us safe,” said Davis, who now works as a trauma therapist. “Obviously, that never happened. But knowing that I had a role in giving that to the boys that were there – that was a really, really cool feeling.”

Finch said his office received reports of five runaways from the school in the first couple months of this year. In one instance, two boys were picked up by a neighboring resident and taken home. The boys asked her to call 911.

A federal lawsuit in 2009 that accused a former principal of sex acts with a female student also alleged that the Musgraves failed to take action to protect the girl. Court records show that ABM Ministries and the Musgraves agreed to pay $750,000 in a settlement, and the principal agreed to pay $100,000.

A probable cause statement said Sandoval bloodied the nose of a 15-year-old. Sandoval initially told investigators he was teaching the boy to box in preparation for a Mixed Martial Arts camp. But he later said the sparring took place about a week after the boy made sexual comments about Sandoval and his wife, the statement said.

The allegations are the latest against people associated with Christian boarding schools in Missouri.

Agape Boarding School in Stockton, Missouri, closed in 2023 after years of investigations and allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Abuse allegations at Agape and at the nearby Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch prompted a state law in 2021 requiring stricter rules for such facilities. Missouri previously had virtually no oversight for religious boarding schools.

Criminal cases are still pending against Agape’s longtime doctor and five other employees. The former owners of Circle of Hope are scheduled to go to trial in November on 100 child abuse counts. They have pleaded not guilty.

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