News & Features

Family of Ranch for Kids Student Files Lawsuit

State authorities in July removed 27 children from private youth program in Rexford amid abuse allegations

The family of a student who attended a therapeutic boarding school in Rexford, which state officials shut down amid allegations of abuse, has filed a lawsuit seeking damages against the youth program’s directors and staff.

Officials with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) in July removed 27 children from the Ranch for Kids, a private alternative youth program in Rexford, alleging “egregious, chronic and persistent child abuse and neglect.” Department officials suspended the facility’s operational license and described 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.

The nonprofit program’s owner has denied or disputed the state’s allegations and has requested a hearing with DPHHS challenging the license suspension; however, Ranch for Kids officials did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

In the federal lawsuit filed Oct. 7 in U.S. District Court in Missoula, the family of a former Ranch for Kids student describes allegations that mirror the state’s and seeks damages exceeding $75,000 against defendants William Sutley, owner and operator of the facility; Daniel Sutley, vice president and treasurer of the Ranch; and Joyce Sterkel, whom the lawsuit identifies as the secretary and a presiding officer at Ranch for Kids.

The lawsuit identifies the plaintiff, Rachelle Limewood, of Spokane, Washington, as the parent and guardian of the former student, a minor identified only by the initials “D.O.”

According to the complaint, D.O. was, among other things, “subjected to extended periods of social isolation, sometimes for days and weeks on end, was subjected to an unhealthy diet, experienced mental and physical abuse, and was exploited for labor at the Individual Defendants’ personal homes.”

The allegations detailed in the lawsuit mirror those described by state officials.

Leading up to the removal of students from Ranch for Kids, state 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.

Beginning 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.

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.

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.

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