Opinion

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Reporter's Notebook

Protecting Vulnerable Kids

Changes to state law for regulating programs such as Ranch for Kids were long overdue

In June of 2012, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Pavel Astakhov, arrived at the gates of Ranch for Kids in Rexford with a team of Russian officials and a television crew. Astakhov had called Ranch for Kids a “trash can for unwanted children” and “penal colony” for Russian adoptees, alleging mistreatment. The Russians were denied entry. The Lincoln County Attorney called the whole ordeal “bizarre.”

Whatever one thinks about Astakhov’s showy tactics or true motives, his underlying claim of mistreatment appears to have been well founded. Last week, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), in coordination with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and state Department of Justice, removed all 27 children from Ranch for Kids and revoked the facility’s license due to “serious allegations of egregious, chronic, and persistent child abuse and neglect of youth … including physical and psychological abuse and assaults of children by staff.”

Ranch for Kids is one of 14 “private alternative adolescent residential or outdoor programs” in the state, with nearly every one located in Northwest Montana. On assignment for the Beacon, I traveled to Rexford in 2012 to meet with Ranch for Kids staff, including founder Joyce Sterkel, following the Astakhov incident, and continued covering the facility’s legal fight with the state, which was trying to shut down the program.

At the time, such programs were under the auspices of the state Department of Labor and Industry, not the DPHHS. The labor department was battling Ranch for Kids for a variety of reasons that weren’t explicitly about abuse allegations. Namely, the ranch was operating without a license, claiming religious exemption, and labor officials said an inspection revealed the facility lacked basic protocol such as a disaster plan, employee background checks and statement of children’s rights, and didn’t comply with fire codes.

Thus, on its surface, the rift was about building codes and licensing, boring bureaucratic stuff. But under the surface, there appeared to be more going on, and rumors abounded regarding mistreatment at Ranch for Kids. Those allegations and reports persisted for years, leading up to last week’s dramatic removal of the youth residents.

So, what finally led to action?

A new law, prompted by a deeply reported Missoulian series called “Troubled Kids, Troubled System,” moved programs like Ranch for Kids from labor department oversight to the DPHHS and created a more robust framework for monitoring the operations. The law went into effect on July 1, and by the end of the month Ranch for Kids no longer had a license or children under its care.

It took a work of journalism to trigger a change that long seemed obvious. The DPHHS is undoubtedly the proper agency to oversee these types of facilities, with the professional expertise, bureaucratic capacity and policy infrastructure to govern an industry that clearly falls under health and human services. The previous five-person oversight board, populated primarily by program representatives, was inadequate no matter the purity of their motives.

Ranch for Kids’ program director Bill Sutley, who is founder Sterkel’s son, has vowed to fight the license suspension, and readers can find more details in our story on page 16. But the state investigation and allegations are damning.

There is no way to ensure the complete safety of kids anywhere, but the new state law at least puts these programs’ children, who are often vulnerable and there because of trauma in their home lives, in the appropriate regulatory hands. It was long overdue.