Trial Date Set, Preliminary Injunction Requested for Ranch for Kids

By Beacon Staff

Eureka’s Ranch for Kids has had a busy month and a half of interaction with the state, starting with a Feb. 5 court ruling against the facility’s religious exemption from state licensure and later including a nationally publicized legislative debate on the state rules that allow such religious exemptions.

Then over the past several weeks, more paperwork was filed in the ranch’s legal battle over licensure and a trial date was set in a second state Department of Labor and Industry lawsuit over a building code dispute.

The state also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction in the building code lawsuit, requesting a judge to order the ranch to quit using certain buildings on its property where the state has concerns and to shut down power to certain buildings until the labor department can verify compliance. The motion asks the court to schedule a show-cause hearing.

An attorney for Ranch for Kids said Monday he would be preparing a response to the state’s motion.

Lincoln County District Court Judge James Wheelis has set a pretrial conference for Oct. 24 in the building code case. The trial will begin Dec. 3. Ranch for Kids is a respite care home that takes in adopted children from around the world who are experiencing problems at home, often due to fetal alcohol-related issues.

State attorneys had said Ranch for Kids was making efforts to correct its building code infractions, but the request for an injunction and decision to move forward with a trial are signs that the labor department feels the ranch hasn’t sufficiently fulfilled its requirements. The injunction motion says the ranch has “refused” to make some corrections.

The ranch’s two labor department lawsuits are distinct, with one focusing exclusively on licensing requirements and the ranch’s unsuccessful argument that it qualifies for a religious exemption from state licensure. The other focuses on building and electrical code violations.

Yet both cases share the common theme of a fundamental disagreement over state oversight, which was at issue during a recent legislative debate that made CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, proposed a bill to eliminate the religious exemption from state licensure for organizations and schools claiming a church affiliation.

On March 13, the House killed the bill 52-45, preserving the religious exemption. Only a small number of children’s facilities – including Ranch for Kids – have utilized the exemption, which clears them from state licensing regulations.

The exemption may be a moot point for Ranch for Kids, given that Judge Wheelis ruled that the organization’s stated religious affiliation doesn’t qualify. But a ranch representative traveled to Helena for a February committee hearing to speak against the bill.

And, although St. Ignatius’ Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch and School was the primary focus of the legislative debate, Hill brought up Ranch for Kids in an emotional defense of her proposal on the House floor. Hill wondered why professions like barbers and outfitters have state oversight but facilities that are entrusted with the safety of children can be exempt.

Ranch for Kids has been operating without a state license since 2010. Though it was once licensed, the ranch has claimed that since it is now affiliated with a church it is no longer subject to state licensure.

But an attorney for the state Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP) board argued in court that the ranch only became affiliated the ministry to escape oversight.

Judge Wheelis sided with the state, ruling that the ranch must do what’s necessary to become compliant with the state or quit operating. Wheelis ordered the ranch to submit a completed application for licensing, background checks of employees and an application fee to the PAARP board no later than March 8. The judge also ordered the ranch to reimburse the board $24,974.89 in attorney’s fees.

Additionally, Wheelis said the state “shall schedule an onsite inspection” of the ranch following the application submission.

The ranch responded with a Feb. 26 motion seeking relief from having to pay the attorney’s fees and asking for an extension to the March 8 deadline, calling it “arbitrary.” The state responded by saying it’s entitled to the attorney’s fees under state law.

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