State Removes 27 Children from Ranch for Kids Amid Allegations of Abuse

Authorities say allegations of ‘egregious abuse’ led to license suspension at private youth program

By Tristan Scott
The Ranch for Kids Project entrance is seen on Indian Creek Road near Eureka. Beacon File Photo

State officials removed 27 children from a private alternative youth program in Rexford on Tuesday morning amid allegations of “egregious, chronic and persistent child abuse and neglect,” according to a statement from the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS).

Sheila Hogan, the department’s director, issued a press statement describing instances of pervasive physical and psychological abuse at the Ranch for Kids, including reports of staff hitting, kicking, body slamming, and spitting on the children in their care.

Located in Lincoln County near Eureka, the Ranch for Kids’ program director, Bill Sutley, was not available for comment and staff did not answer repeated phone calls to the organization’s office.

“Today, the State of Montana removed 27 children due to serious allegations of egregious, chronic, and persistent child abuse and neglect of youth who reside at Ranch for Kids in Rexford, Montana, including physical and psychological abuse and assaults of children by staff,” according to Hogan’s statement. “Simultaneously, the facility’s license was suspended effective immediately. DPHHS is working to contact parents and develop plans to reunify families or help find suitable placement for these youth. The health, safety, and welfare of all children who live in Montana is paramount, and no child should have to experience what multiple sources have alleged has happened at the Ranch for Kids. We are grateful to the many agencies, including law enforcement, who ensured the safety of the kids and caseworkers during today’s removals.”

Ranch for Kids bills itself as a respite care home that takes in adopted children from around the world — especially Russia — who are experiencing problems at home, often due to fetal alcohol-related issues.

According to department officials, allegations of abuse at the Ranch for Kids have escalated in frequency and severity in recent months, and the process of removing the children was carefully staffed and carried out in such a way to ensure that they are in “a safe, trauma-informed place with needed care and proper nutrition.”

The details of their care and condition are confidential, though DPHHS Deputy Director Laura Smith stressed that they are in a safe, trauma-informed setting and that Dr. Eric Arzubi, a Billings psychiatrist, is leading a team that is focused on trauma assessment.

The DPHHS investigation is ongoing, and is separate from a criminal investigation involving both state and Lincoln County authorities.

Smith said the investigation was sparked in June by a call to the DPHHS abuse and neglect hotline, which is at 1-866-820-KIDS (5437). That led to a full child welfare investigation and numerous interviews that corroborated the information, including former staff, students, neighbors, Forest Service workers, and other witnesses.

“This is one of the most complex child welfare investigations and operational events we have ever conducted at our agency and we are extremely grateful for our partnerships with other agencies, particularly law enforcement and approximately 20 child welfare workers who were extremely professional in ensuring that these kids feel safe,” Smith said.

Officials say they obtained information including allegations of students being physically hit, kicked, body slammed and spit on by staff; staff inflicting persistent psychological abuse on children; staff using excessive discipline, including requiring 15-20 mile walks on remote U.S. Forest Service roads in harsh conditions, with improper or no shoes, withholding food, shooting a nail gun at a student, and prolonged isolation; children not receiving medical attention when it was critically needed; and medications not properly administered, stored, or regulated.

Runaways also were not reported in a consistent or timely manner to law enforcement, even in harsh winter conditions, according to the DPHHS.

“We are contacting parents to make plans for reunification or help them find a safe alternative placement,” according to a DPHHS press release.

DPHHS has set up a toll-free phone line for parents and guardians of the children seeking information at 1-888-200-8002.

DPHHS also received support from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation in carrying out the summary license suspension order at the Ranch for Kids. The Ranch for Kids cannot operate without a valid license.

As of July 1, a new state law transferred authority of the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Program to DPHHS. Prior to July 1, DPHHS did not have licensing authority over these programs.

“That allowed us to take immediate licensing action,” Smith said.

A series of stories on private alternative treatment programs by the Missoulian shed light on the lack of oversight and helped prompt the legislative changes.

For years, the Ranch for Kids operated without a license, arguing it was exempt from state requirements because it was an adjunct ministry. In 2013, a district court judge ruled against the ranch, ending its long-running dispute with the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Reached by telephone, the founder of the Ranch for Kids, Joyce Sterkel, said she retired from the ranch six years ago and was vaguely aware of “some sort of problem.” Her son, Sutley, is the current program director.