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Ranch for Kids fights license suspension after removal of 27 kids

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Ranch for Kids July 2019

The state health department removed all 27 children from the Ranch for Kids in Rexford on July 23 following allegations of abuse and neglect. The department is now proposing major changes to rules governing private residential programs for troubled teens to make them safer for children attending them.

The Ranch for Kids, a private program for troubled youth in Rexford, is contesting the suspension of its license after the state health department removed 27 children from the facility on July 23 following allegations of "egregious, chronic, and persistent" child abuse and neglect.

The date has not yet been set for the hearing for the Ranch for Kids to contest the suspension with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The hearing will be confidential and closed to the public, according to DPHHS spokesman Jon Ebelt.

Ranch for Kids executive director Bill Sutley has consistently denied the health department's allegations of abuse and neglect dating back 10 years — including reports of children being "hit, kicked, body-slammed and spit on" by staff. 

"That information, a lot of it was unsubstantiated, a lot of repetitive things in there, and there was really no evidence to support the suspension," Sutley told the Missoulian on Tuesday.

He said a "thorough" response has been drafted. "What we want to present is the other side of the story or some additional information to refute all of the allegations in the affidavit. Their sources of information, I think, are probably going to be in question."

The intervention came after the agency gained oversight of 14 programs geared toward troubled teens on July 1, following legislation that moved the oversight of such programs from an essentially self-regulating board housed in the state Labor Department to DPHHS. The shift to DPHHS allows the state to investigate whole programs, not just individual cases of abuse and neglect.

A Missoulian investigation published earlier this year found none of the 58 complaints lodged against private programs for troubled teens over 12 years of Labor Department oversight resulted in significant discipline.

Ebelt said child welfare proceedings are sealed and confidential under Montana law so DPHHS is unable to comment on the specifics of individual cases. However, all child welfare matters require oversight by the courts, and court proceedings are part of the legal process in situations when children are removed and in the temporary custody of DPHHS.

Sutley said Tuesday that "I would imagine there would be a lot of potential candidates who would be able to testify on our behalf and be able to provide evidence." Those witnesses, he said, will likely include students, staff, parents, but "more importantly, expert witnesses are going to be more effective."

Ebelt said that while the "vast majority" of children at Ranch for Kids have been reunited with their parents, DPHHS is continuing to work with parents and the court on finding suitable placement for children who are still in temporary custody of the state.

While the DPHHS continues to investigate the Ranch for Kids, state law enforcement is simultaneously investigating possible criminal charges from the allegations. 

“In my career spanning almost 40 years, I haven’t seen something of this scale before,” Division of Criminal Justice Administrator Bryan Lockerby previously told the Missoulian.

DPHHS is also in the process of visiting programs and drafting new rules to govern policies and practices for the private residential programs for troubled teens. Those proposed rules will be presented for public comment at a date that has yet to be announced.

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