Mingled expressions of gratitude and frustration greeted the news that Montana's health department had removed all 27 children from the Ranch for Kids in remote Rexford and suspended the private program's license.
Former staff member Nia Stoken said she felt "a huge sigh of relief that the kids that were there are getting freed from the hell that they've experienced."
Stoken said she worked from fall 2016 to spring 2017 at the program that focused on troubled children from overseas adoptions. On Tuesday, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, with the help of multiple agencies including law enforcement, removed all the boys and girls, roughly ages 11-17, citing complaints of physical and psychological abuse and neglect. Ranch for Kids executive director Bill Sutley told the Missoulian Wednesday that the Ranch will challenge the health department's decision to suspend its license following allegations of abuse and neglect. (See related story.)
The agency's action against Ranch for Kids came 23 days after DPHHS gained oversight of private alternative residential programs in a regulatory overhaul directed by lawmakers after an investigative series by the Missoulian.
"I'm profoundly moved that we've been able to get those children who have been through so much out of that place and somewhere where they are safe and where their needs are going to get taken care of," said Sen. Diane Sands, a Democrat from Missoula who carried the legislation that moved oversight of programs to DPHHS.
Prior to the change, oversight of programs rested in the hands of a Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) board whose majority comprised owners and operators from the residential programs scattered throughout western Montana.
Jennifer Downard, who attended the Ranch for Kids from June 2015 to July 2017, said she was "mad that it took this long for the state to do something about this."
Still, she said, "I’m super-happy that they finally caught them because no one believed us or listened to us when we were there, and we were just hoping it would be a matter of time until they finally shut them down."
Over the past decade, the board received 10 complaints against the Ranch for Kids, yet the program continued to operate.
Grace Berger, DLI executive officer, was unavailable for comment Wednesday. Judy Bovington, the department's chief legal counsel was also unavailable; in testimony to lawmakers this spring, Bovington conceded DLI did not have expertise to oversee youth treatment programs.
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DLI started to share information with DPHHS, including the open complaint about Ranch for Kids, when the two departments began meeting in May to plan transitioning oversight of PAARP facilities. However, the children were removed as a result of a tip to the health department's hotline.
Over the years, DLI received 58 complaints against various private residential programs; none resulted in significant sanctions. Lauren Lewis, DLI public information officer, said Wednesday the complaint against Ranch for Kids was the only open complaint at the time regulation of such programs was transferred to the health department on July 1.
Lewis said all other complaints against programs have been closed by the board.
Prior to July, DPHHS had no regulatory power over programs and could only deal with reports involving individual children. Now that the new laws are in effect, the department has the ability to investigate complaints against programs themselves.
"Every child deserves to be in a safe, protected place and not be abused," said Sands, the state senator. "We don't allow people who have been convicted of felonies and are in prison to be treated the way some of these children have been treated."
Reports made to DPHHS that led to their intervention at Ranch for Kids detailed punishments included withholding food and prolonged isolation. Runaways were not reported and reports stated that medications were not properly administered or regulated, and that children did not receive medical attention when it was "critically needed," according to the agency
Downard said her experiences at the program mirrored those reported to DPHHS; they included 15- to 20-mile walks as well as physical, verbal and psychological abuse by staff. Downard said she saw staff berate adopted children, saying things like, “'Your parents gave you up for a reason; they didn’t want you. You’re useless.'"
Stoken said she hopes the health department's actions provide some closure for former students.
"I just hope that some of the kids that were really seriously traumatized in the past from the Ranch for Kids get justice for what happened," she said.