REXFORD — Inside the Ranch for Kids, a private program for troubled youth, clothes left hanging on chairs and unmade beds in the dorm rooms Wednesday bore witness to the total sweep that took place one day earlier when state officials and law enforcement removed 27 children due to "egregious" reports of abuse and neglect.
Wednesday, staff sat in the gymnasium in the facility, a former school building in the town of 150 people, trying to reconcile the previous day’s events. In addition to removing the children in a two-hour sting conducted by 20 caseworkers and law enforcement authorities, the state suspended the license of the enterprise that described itself as a Christian alternative residential program.
Ranch for Kids executive director Bill Sutley said he is fully cooperating with the state’s investigation, but he was nonetheless defiant in the face of the state district court order to remove the children. The order was bolstered by reports from law enforcement, U.S. Forest Service personnel and former residents at the Ranch.
“The unfortunate part of that is it just tells me that we’re dealing with a state government that is quite deceptive,” Sutley said of the removal operation on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, community members had started to call for better security at the Ranch for Kids, citing incidents that they said endangered residents and children. Wednesday, at least one resident expressed regret at not taking more action.
"The supervision of these children is irresponsible,” said resident Gwen Grayson, who co-owns the Frontier Bar with her husband, Terry Grayson. They live across the street from the Ranch for Kids facility.
Wednesday, a state health department official said the agency had made contact with "virtually all of the parents" since the children's removal. In an email, spokesman Jon Ebelt said some children had reunited with their parents and the department anticipated more in the coming days.
"We are also working to assist parents to identify safe, trauma-informed alternative placement," Ebelt said in an email.
Law enforcement authorities made no arrests during the sweep, but children are being interviewed, and the Montana Department of Justice noted it would investigate allegations and explore criminal charges.
Sutley, however, said the Ranch for Kids would challenge the state’s decision to suspend its license and remove the children.
As he conducted a tour of the newly deserted facility Wednesday, Sutley called some of the allegations listed in the court order to remove the children outright lies and others "deceptions," or deviations from the truth. To his knowledge, no one ever shot a nail gun at a student, he said.
One day earlier, in announcing the program's license suspension, health officials cited walks of up to 22 miles in remote territory and bad weather with inappropriate clothing. Sutley said long walks were used as a form of discipline. But allegations that residents were forced to do so without proper clothing and in unsafe conditions appeared to baffle him.
“We can talk about therapeutic walks, we can talk about abuse, we can talk about neglect, but unless you’ve emotionally experienced living with these kids, you’re not going to get it,” he said. "Everything we’re here to do to stand against is what we’re being accused of."
In May, a notice that the Montana Department of Labor and Industry issued to Ranch for Kids said the following: "Ranch for Kids provided conflicting information about the purpose of the walks. Mr. Sutley claimed the walks are not a punishment or behavior modification, but the walks are also repeatedly described by Mr. Sutley and Ranch for Kids staff as a consequence for severe behavior."
The Ranch for Kids had been dealing with those allegations before the state health department got involved as a result of new legislation that transferred oversight of such programs to DPHHS as of July 1. Sutley, who was educated as an electrical engineer and said he has never taken a psychology course, said he has been criticized for being "egotistical."
During Wednesday's tour, Sutley said the state’s removal of the residents under his care was more damaging than helpful, considering previous traumas.
“If you want to help and be part of the solution, let’s talk,” Sutley said. “If you don’t, get out of my way and leave me the hell alone, because you're not helping. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I guess that’s how I feel about it.”
Ranch for Kids first obtained a license from the Department of Labor and Industry in 2006. The program spent three years operating without state oversight. Even after a license renewal, it was never significantly sanctioned despite numerous complaints.
This July, its license transferred to DPHHS in a regulatory overhaul directed by lawmakers after an investigative series by the Missoulian. The stories examined the previous lack of meaningful regulation of such programs, most of them private and for-profit, scattered throughout northwestern Montana.
Even recently, skeptics including providers have pushed Ranch for Kids away in fear of its practices. Sutley noted a Whitefish psychiatrist terminated his treatment schedule with the Ranch for Kids earlier this year.
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“He didn’t feel that we were safe,” Sutley said. “He didn't feel like we were clinical enough. And quite frankly, he chose to fire us because I told him point-blank on the phone a week prior I have no respect for you.”
Sutley offered the information about the psychiatrist but declined to give his name.
Sutley said Ranch for Kids has been open and transparent with law enforcement and the small community in which they reside, but his claim doesn’t check out with locals in Rexford, a town remote even by the standard of Lincoln County.
Many, if not half, the homes here are second homes to people who live here in the summer, said Mayor Bill Marvel, 72. He said small-town rumors have floated to the surface now and again, but no word seems to come from the Ranch when incidents do take place. The town doesn’t have a police force to enforce the law either, he said, just a deputy who rolls through when he can.
“If something happens, we would like to know,” Marvel said.
At town council meetings, residents here have started to “demand” better security on the Ranch’s part, perhaps in the form of better fencing or more staff on hand at night.
Sutley was again defiant when asked about the community's relationship with the Ranch for Kids.
"The truth is, people don't want to take the effort to learn. It takes effort to learn, it takes effort to think. The reason most people don't think is its hard work," he said. "The truth is our primary responsibility is to keep the kids safe. It isn't to go out there and make the world like us or love us."
Those who live here, said Grayson and the mayor, have come to know the problems associated with the Ranch’s troubled youths: the time a number of residents at the Ranch stole a vehicle and crashed it near Couer d’Alene. The winter of 2018, when another resident slipped out at night and burned down a Canadian family’s summer home; no one was hurt. Another woman moved from town after some Ranch kids broke into her house, drank her alcohol and left menacing messages, said Grayson.
“We don’t feel safe,” Grayson said. “They’ve got some really good help and care about the kids. I know several of them. But Rexford is in danger."
Running the only bar in town, Grayson said she knows and respects many employees at the Ranch, which Sutley said totaled about 15. There are a few, however, that concern her.
Grayson described two incidents she watched from her home window that gave her pause even long before the allegations leveled by the state against the Ranch for Kids. Once, she saw what appeared to be someone daring a child to run away; when he did, she said Ranch staff threw him in the back of a car and handled him in a way that could be suspected as abuse, but her line of sight wasn’t perfect. In another instance, she said a small boy “having a tantrum” was left outside in the cold long enough to take pictures of the clock as a measure.
After learning of the allegations now made public by the state health department, she said she wishes she had done more. She always gave the children chicken and curly fries at the bar when the Ranch staff allowed it. Several kids from the facility, she said, had fled the Ranch to her bar to call someone on the phone. She always let them, but usually called the Ranch to return the youths.
“It makes me heartsick,” she said. “It wasn’t enough to call in. Not enough to go over there and scream at them.”
After the removal of more than two dozen boys and girls at Ranch for Kids on Tuesday, the health department said it had received multiple reports of children being "hit, kicked, body-slammed and spit on" at Ranch for Kids, which takes children from failed adoptions and often with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and Reactive Attachment Disorder. Other reports included withholding food and prolonged isolation.
Sutley said he has spent much of the last 24 hours in contact with each parent and guardian since the children were taken from the facility.
He said Ranch for Kids will go through the process to challenge the health department's decision to suspend its license. If he wins the challenge, he said the program would essentially start over with new clients, but he said he had not considered the alternative.
"I haven't thought much about that," he said.
Missoulian reporter Cameron Evans and the Associated Press contributed to this story.