At least a couple of parents of children taken last week from the Ranch for Kids said they were left in the dark for hours about the status of their teens after the state health department removed the minors following reports of abuse and neglect at the private program in Rexford.
"Nobody reached out to me at all," said Tane Larrabee, whose daughter was removed from the facility in northeastern Montana on Tuesday morning. "Instead, I spent hours and hours and hours doing legwork, and mostly, I ended up with voicemails or numbers that were not in service anymore."
The sweep of the residential Christian program came after an overhaul of state oversight directed by lawmakers. State officials and legislators praised Tuesday's operation and outcome for children, but the unprecedented action left some parents scared for their children's safety.
"I spent the entire day on Tuesday in just a fit of panic," Larrabee said.
In emails to the Missoulian, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services acknowledged the voicemail for a hotline set up for parents and guardians did not function the day of the sweep. However, the agency repeatedly stressed that concerns for the children came first.
"Their safety was first priority," said spokesperson Chuck Council. "Once children were safe, staff began contacting parents. … With 27 children, this was facilitated as quickly as possible — as the department understands the importance of children having contact with their parents as quickly as possible."
Larrabee and another parent, Clare Higgins, said they first heard of the events in a text from Kathy Ness, the director of the girls division of Ranch, which accepts boys and girls but keeps the genders separated. They subsequently struggled to make contact with officials.
"It was over seven hours and me constantly calling people before I even got to talk to my daughter," who was "hysterical" when they finally spoke, Higgins said.
Ness had immediately notified the girls' parents and said she had little information, but she texted parents photos of business cards from individuals with various agencies that removed the children. Eventually, Larrabee received the number for the hotline, but she couldn't get through.
"All I got was a message saying ‘This voice box has not been set up. Try again later,’" Larrabee said.
Larrabee and Higgins said it was after midnight when they finally talked to their daughters, who had been transported to Missoula for medical evaluations and then sent to a program in Great Falls.
"For the parents and guardians of these kids, it has been the worst nightmare that you could imagine," Larrabee said. "I went for the longest time without having any clue about where my daughter was."
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The health department said it had contacted one or both parents of all children by Wednesday afternoon, and most of the contacts with parents came about "proactively through staff calling them." A court order authorizing removal mandated the Ranch provide contact information.
Although the health department acknowledged the hotline's voicemail was not operating until the day after the state took custody of the children, Council said the agency was monitoring calls 24-7.
"If calls were missed due to being on the line with another parent, staff made every effort to call back based on the phone number registered in the system," Council said.
The health department became responsible for overseeing private alternative residential programs for troubled youth on July 1. Legislators approved the transfer of authority from the Department of Labor and Industry following an investigation by the Missoulian that showed a lack of meaningful oversight of the private for-profit programs, most of them in rural northwestern Montana.
The health department shut down the operation in Rexford after receiving multiple reports of children being “hit, kicked, body-slammed and spit on.” The complaints included physical and psychological abuse, assault by staff members, 15- to 20-mile walks in harsh weather conditions with inappropriate shoes at night, and withholding of food.
Last week, a spokesperson for the department said a multiagency team prioritized the safe removal of students over immediately notifying parents. Authorities from multiple agencies planned the operation described as unprecedented in scope, with 20 caseworkers and 15 law enforcement officials including 11 from the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office.
"Due to safety concerns involving Ranch for Kids staff having multiple weapons, the multiagency team, including law enforcement, determined that it was imperative to ensure the kids were safely removed and transported to a safe location," Council said in an email. "Their safety was first priority. Once children were safe, staff began contacting parents. Once safe placement was identified for each child, parents were provided that specific information."
As a parent, Larrabee said she was aware of certain program policies under scrutiny. However, she said she checked in frequently with her daughter and didn't believe her communication was monitored, citing incidents where her daughter was able to step outside to talk with her if it was noisy inside.
She said that she felt her daughter was making progress in her two years at the Ranch but has since regressed. On phone calls since Tuesday, she said her daughter has "reverted back to a quiet, catatonic state." Larrabee, who lives in Honolulu, is struggling to coordinate her daughter's pickup.
Higgins' 16-year-old daughter Nola is back home with her family, who traveled from Pennsylvania to pick her up. She said the program felt like home to her over time, but she recognized everyone's experience was different.
"The program is not for everyone. That's all I can say. Some kids shouldn't have been there, but some kids should have been," Nola said.
She said when she and some other residents learned they would never return to the program, "we all started crying. I had almost been there for three years. It’s our home and our family, and being told that we’re never going to come back was really crushing."