The Ranch for Kids Project, an unlicensed rural boarding school for troubled children adopted abroad, was dealt a blow this week when a Libby judge ruled that the facility is not exempt from state fees and oversight because it does not qualify as a church ministry.
The ruling is in response to a lawsuit by a Montana Department of Labor and Industry board, which argued that the Eureka facility has been sidestepping state licensing requirements through its designation as an “adjunct ministry.”
“The exemption,” state attorney Mary Tapper wrote in the lawsuit, should “apply to a program having a bona fide relationship with a church, not a program seeking a loophole to circumvent the board’s licensing requirements.”
The ranch, designed for troubled adopted children who suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders – many of them from Russia – was one of the first programs licensed by the state Department of Labor and Industry’s Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs.
In 2010, Ranch for Kids owner Joyce Sterkel began having discussions with a local church about partnering as an “adjunct ministry,” which exempts the facility from state oversight and what she says are “prohibitive fees.” Sterkel has been operating without a license ever since.
On Tuesday, Lincoln County District Judge Jim Wheelis sided with the state board, agreeing that neither the Ranch for Kids nor the religious organization it partnered with qualifies as a real church or ministry. He asked Tapper to draft an order detailing the steps the Ranch for Kids must take in order to become licensed, which she hoped to complete by next week.
Tapper said it is not the state’s intent to shut the ranch down, but that the facility’s future is contingent on full compliance.
“Ideally, what we would like to see is that they comply with the licensing requirements,” Tapper said. “Obviously the judge agreed with us that they do need to be licensed, but for 2 1/2 years they have refused to comply and they haven’t paid any fees.”
Sterkel said she was disappointed by the court’s decision, but not surprised.
“It is unfortunate, but I think he had his mind made up ahead of time,” she said. “We are taking it under advisement, talking to legal counsel, and then we will make a decision with regard to the direction we are going to go.”
The ranch will appeal the decision, take the necessary steps toward licensure or close its doors, Sterkel said.
“We will decide which of those three options will best serve our clients and the staff, but I am confident we will find a way to stay open,” she said.
In October 2011, after the state board sent Sterkel a cease-and-desist order, she and Jeremy Evjene, a ranch employee and the head of the Epicenter International Missions Ministry, signed a memorandum of understanding designating the ranch an “adjunct ministry,” and exempting it from the state’s authority.
Founded in 2004 by Evjene, Epicenter International Missions Ministry has no building, congregation or ordained clergy, even though Evjene, first hired at the Ranch for Kids as a construction worker, serves as a counselor and youth pastor. He has performed baptisms and has led Bible studies, youth group counseling sessions and church services.
In court briefs, Tapper wrote that Epicenter International Missions Ministry “is not a church, but the evangelical philosophy of a young man with no degree or formal theological training.”
Ranch for Kids attorney J. Tiffin Hall said Epicenter International Missions Ministry has been incorporated as a not-for-profit ministry in the state of Montana since June 2006, and all of the parents who send their children there are aware of the affiliation.
At the hearing, he submitted numerous letters of support from parents of children in the program.
Tapper said she has yet to determine the parameters of the order, but that licensure will likely require the resolution of a separate case brought by the Department of Labor’s Building Codes Bureau, which alleges the Ranch for Kids violated building and electrical codes by refusing state property inspections. Ranch officials contended that they were not subject to those inspections as a private facility, but have since taken steps toward meeting those state requirements. A March 4 compliance hearing will be held before Judge Wheelis.
Sterkel, who has been involved with international adoptions for more than two decades, said the Ranch for Kids is a critical resource for families struggling to manage adopted children who exhibit behavioral problems that are the result of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, as well as the effects of living in difficult conditions in orphanages abroad.
A low-cost alternative to other respite care facilities, parents pay $3,500 per month to send their children to the ranch. Some require weeks or months, others years.
Sterkel said she is “absolutely open to having oversight,” but feels the state has been heavy-handed in its efforts to seek compliance.
The Ranch for Kids received international attention last summer when Russian children’s ombudsman Pavel Astakhov and human rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov arrived at its gates with a camera crew in tow and demanded access.
The government officials demanded to check on the adopted children from Russia in Sterkel’s care, but nobody came to meet them at the gate. Sterkel said she earlier denied the crew access, believing their arrival to be a publicity stunt designed to highlight problems with the bilateral adoption agreement and keep it in the international spotlight.
Twenty-five to 30 children between the ages of 5 and 18 live on the ranch in Eureka. About 10 are Russian, while the others come from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia and other countries.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 531-9745 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.