Missouri child welfare agency head indicted in assault case

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — The head of a suburban St. Louis child welfare agency and alternative school for children with severe behavioral problems has been indicted on assault and attempted child endangerment charges after a hotline call alleged that he choked a student.

Vincent Damian Hillyer, 58, of Eureka, was arrested Tuesday after police executed a search warrant at Great Circle Academy, an alternative school that offers boarding in Webster Groves, Missouri.

On Wednesday, prosecutors said a St. Louis County grand jury indicted Hillyer on one count each of attempted endangering the welfare of a child, a felony, and misdemeanor assault. The charges in the indictment replace the original ones, which included six felony child-endangerment counts.

Hillyer's bond was set at $205,000. Online court records do not list an attorney for him.

A police probable cause statement said a hotline call to the Missouri Department of Social Services indicated a child was choked at the academy. A video shows Hillyer restraining a child and choking the child on a couch, according to the statement.

The indictment alleges that on April 17, Hillyer choked and used restraints on a child. Subordinate employees were then ordered to "falsify reports regarding the child," according to the indictment.

Great Circle is an organization that provides behavioral health services to thousands of children in state custody and students with mental illness and learning disabilities. It operates six schools throughout the state as well as counseling centers, and provides home services.

The Webster Groves school has about 250 students in kindergarten through high school. It was visited in September by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and other federal health officials who were traveling the country learning about efforts to battle opioid addiction.

"Working with young clients who have acute behavioral health needs can often be difficult," Great Circle spokeswoman Bev Pfeifer-Harms said in a statement, noting that the investigation by Webster Groves police centered on "care provided in a small number of circumstances."

"While we remain confident in the therapeutic approach used in our facilities, as an organization, we will fully cooperate with all of those who are investigating this matter," Pfeifer-Harms said.

Hillyer was placed on administrative leave at his own request, Pfeifer-Harms said.

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