Children interviewed amid abuse allegations at Montana ranch
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — More than two dozen children who were removed from an alternative treatment center in Montana are being interviewed as part of an investigation into allegations of physical and psychological abuse, officials said Wednesday.
The 27 children were taken from the Ranch for Kids program in a two-hour coordinated effort involving state and local law enforcement officers and the state health department, which cited increasing reports of “egregious abuse” in recent months at the facility near the Canadian border.
The state said 20 caseworkers removed the children on Tuesday. Law enforcement officers ensured there was no conflict.
The children, between the ages of 11 and 17, were taken to a safe location and will be interviewed as part of the ongoing investigation of the ranch’s practices, said John Barnes, spokesman for the Department of Justice.
“The information that comes through conversations with the kids who were taken from the ranch,” will provide most of the evidence as state investigators look into whether any criminal charges should be filed, Barnes said.
Health officials declined to say what kind of medical care the children may have needed, but said several medical professionals are conducting evaluations, including a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist.
A phone call to the ranch rang unanswered Wednesday. Director Bill Sutley told the Missoulian newspaper that he plans to challenge the state’s decision to suspend the program’s license.
The ranch’s website says it provides treatment for children with issues caused by maternal use of alcohol or drugs while pregnant or an inability to bond with adoptive parents. It specializes in treating children who were adopted from foreign countries.
Staff uses Christian principles and the values of caring, simplicity, consistency and accountability to “help kids build new habits and healthier behaviors so they can live successfully in a family and society,” the ranch website states.
However, the parents of a 9-year-old who had been treated at the ranch filed a complaint in September 2017 saying staff physically, verbally and emotionally abused children in their care.
The Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs heard the complaint in March 2018, ordered an inspection and discussed the matter at a meeting in February. The complaint included allegations the 9-year-old was required to go on 16-mile (26-kilometer) “therapy walks” that caused medical issues with the child’s club foot.
The board found the ranch gave children fewer privileges, less appetizing meals and long walks as punishment for poor behavior. A staffer told inspectors that participants could lose their mattresses if bedwetting was a problem.
Ranch officials, including Stutley, denied abusing children and told the board a former employee deleted an account containing some direct care notes.
The board wrote to the Ranch for Kids on May 17, saying it found the ranch committed “unprofessional conduct justifying disciplinary proceedings.”
Montana lawmakers passed a bill that took effect on July 1 moving oversight of the private alternative treatment programs to the state health department after an investigation by the Missoulian found the programs faced few sanctions despite numerous complaints.
Lincoln County Sheriff Darren Short said health officials contacted his office on July 12 to begin discussing removal plans.
District Judge Matthew J. Cuffe of Libby signed orders Monday giving the Division of Child and Family Services the authority to remove the children.
The health department issued a statement Tuesday saying it had information students were being hit, kicked, body-slammed and spit on by staff.
Stutley told the Missoulian the allegations were deviations from the truth.