Licensure for a troubled youth home in northwest Montana has been permanently revoked following a state investigation that found physical, psychological and sexual abuse and neglect of children attending the Ranch for Kids.
On Wednesday, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services released the decision by an administrative hearing officer. The document released by the department surfaces a trove of allegations of misconduct, improper medication administration and assault by staff at the Ranch for Kids outside Rexford. The decision is final; the time for Ranch for Kids to appeal the revocation in state district court has expired, DPHHS deputy chief legal counsel Nick Domitrovich said Wednesday.
In a conference call with DPHHS officials Wednesday morning, deputy director Laura Smith told the Missoulian she was unaware of any other child protection effort as large as the probe into Ranch for Kids, which included local law enforcement, the Montana Department of Justice, local prosecutors and the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. Domitrovich said the department interviewed more than 100 former Ranch for Kids participants, some of them now adults, and investigators sometimes had little more than a first name to track down information.
"One of the things you start noticing right away is you start hearing the stories over and over, and you hear it among kids who never knew each other," Domitrovich said.
One former student alleged sexual assault by an employee. The student said she was then made to recant the allegation in front of the staff and alleged assailant. This student was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder before arriving at Ranch for Kids, according to the decision.
The same student told a DPHHS hearing officer that Bill Sutley, owner and co-founder of the Ranch for Kids, “put her in a hold and brought her to the ground” after she tried walking away from him.
A call to the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline in June 2019 prompted the state’s investigation that revealed “chronic abuse and neglect reported by multiple witnesses, included previous staff, students, law enforcement, forest service workers and neighbors in the area,” according to DPHHS. The state removed 27 children from the Ranch for Kids in June 2019 after receiving the complaints. The ages of the children ranged from 11 to 17. One child removed from the program remains in state custody, Smith said.
Svetlana Harp, who goes by Sophie, attended Ranch for Kids from 2015 to 2016 and told the Missoulian in a message that she had conflicted feelings about the news surrounding the program's suspension when she first heard about it.
"I was shocked and happy at the same time," Harp said in a message Wednesday. "I was trying to move on with my life and when I heard, it kind of brought back all of the trauma and memories."
Harp said she is part of an online community of program survivors and said she was "pretty quiet and didn’t really speak up until now."
"I am forever grateful for those who spoke up and believed our stories," she said. "I hope this is a time of change and moving forward places like this cease to exist."
“The vivid, and often difficult, testimony of the former participants, employee, and medical providers regarding RFK treatment of the participants is extremely disturbing,” the order reads. “Long walks/runs without proper food or attire, food rationing, isolation, lack or denial of medical and mental care, forced labor, physical and mental intimidation, sexual abuse, and manipulation were the common experiences by those who lived at RFK. It is even more concerning given the vulnerable population that RFK supposedly served.”
The program claimed to specialize in the treatment of children with reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and who had prenatal alcohol exposure.
Ranch for Kids, at the hearing to defend its license from such allegations, never brought any witnesses to rebut the testimony and allegations by former students, staff or law enforcement, according to the hearing officer’s decision. The program owners did, the decision notes, argue the health department did not have jurisdiction to investigate its program. The 2019 state Legislature granted oversight of such programs to the health department, allowing the department to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect.
Sutley told the Missoulian in an email Wednesday that the state came into Rexford and took the program's license "without just cause or due process. Our lease ended in September 2019."
Sutley told the Missoulian that he will not pursue a new business license "under the DPHHS new rules."
Ranch for Kids is not precluded from reopening a new program under a religious ministry affiliation; such programs do not fall under state regulatory oversight.
The Montana Department of Justice on Wednesday said it would soon refer its case to the Lincoln County Attorney's Office, which has jurisdiction to prosecute any alleged crimes by Ranch for Kids.
The health department decision states that seven complaints were filed with state officials against Ranch for Kids in the program’s history. In one case, a child had fled the office of a psychiatrist, whom the child was seeing for suicidal ideations, from Ranch for Kids staff. When an officer eventually located the child, Kathy Ness, an employee, told the officer she wished the officer had tased the child.
That psychiatrist later cut ties with Ranch for Kids after learning staff had stopped following his recommendations, which included the student’s medication schedule, according to the hearing officer’s order.
In June 2018, a U.S. Forest Service ranger stopped a vehicle in the area that was driving behind a child on the road. The driver, reportedly a Ranch for Kids employee, said the child was on a long disciplinary run for running away to California. The ranger found the child had been reported missing, and Ranch for Kids had failed to notify law enforcement when the child had been found.
In another incident in 2017, a couple hunting encountered a boy running on a road in Kootenai National Forest in below-freezing conditions with snow on the ground. The boy did not have a coat and his jeans were wet up to the knees. The woman told staff who were trailing the boy in a vehicle that she was concerned he was not properly clothed and offered a spare orange hunting vest, which the staff turned down. The woman reported the incident to both law enforcement and the child abuse hotline, but was never told the outcome.
A former staff member also testified that a special "level" was created for one student who was not allowed to interact with other participants, was made to sleep on a mat in the gym due to bed-wetting, and was placed on a restricted meal plan consisting of iceberg lettuce, two hard-boiled eggs and five saltine crackers. That same student was required to complete additional therapy walks and once was made to walk on a treadmill for the entire day. The former employee said she noticed physical changes as a result, noting "his calves were smaller than his kneecaps."
“These children came to RFK damaged, and, from the testimony elicited at the hearing, RFK' s practices had the potential, if not certainty, to leave them in an even worse state,” the hearing officer wrote in the decision.
Former students also testified their education was administered in peculiar manners. Students took turns reading from the same textbook for 45 minutes to an hour each day, one student said. The same student said Sutley’s class was heavily religious, along with diatribes about “government agencies, how they were the enemy, and how they were out to tear families apart.”
After removing the children from Ranch for Kids in July 2019, Child and Family Services reached out to Dr. Eric Arzubi, former chair of the psychiatry department at Billings Clinic, as well as the physician of the year in 2014, former president of the Big Sky Chapter of the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, and one of the board of directors of Prevent Child Abuse Montana, to examine the children.
“Having interviewed the former RFK participants and reviewed materials related to RFK’s treatment of the participants, Dr. Arzubi did not see that RFK employed any interventions that met the definition of a clinical standard.”
The Ranch for Kids had a troubled history of licensure issues. The program was first granted a provisional license by the state labor department in 2009, but the board terminated that license after Ranch for Kids failed to correct deficiencies noted in inspections. The program attempted to argue it was exempt from state oversight because of a religious affiliation, and failed. Still, the program operated without a state license until the program was granted one in 2015.
In 2019, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 267 with bipartisan support, bringing programs like Ranch for Kids out from under a regulatory board under the state’s labor department that was made up primarily of people who owned the programs they were regulating and gave oversight to the state health department.
Acting DPHHS Director Erica Johnston said Wednesday the number of programs operating in Montana has gone from 18 at the time the state health department took oversight of them to 11, in addition to one program with a provisional license, according to the state's website. None are currently under the same administrative scrutiny faced by Ranch for Kids, Johnston said. Complaints have arisen at other programs, although those complaints are "not extraordinary" in comparison with those made against other industries overseen by DPHHS, including drug rehabilitation facilities.
As the 2021 Legislature approaches, Johnston said the department currently does not have any changes to its oversight of the troubled teen programs to bring before lawmakers.
"What came out of the 2019 legislature was a clear message by the legislative body to increase the oversight," Johnston said. "At this point I'd say we’re in pretty good shape."
The 2019 Legislature enacted new oversight measures following a Missoulian investigation titled, "Troubled Kids, Troubled System," which highlighted regulatory issues of the industry.