Ranch for Kids License Permanently Revoked Due to Pervasive Abuse

Since removing 27 children from a therapeutic teen treatment near Rexford last year, state officials have uncovered instances of physical and sexual abuse that persisted for years

By Tristan Scott
The front of The Ranch for Kids School in Rexford, Montana on July 26, 2019. Montana state officials removed 27 children from the treatment facility for troubled youth on July 23, 2019 after allegations of abuse against the children by ranch staff. Beacon file photo

A culture of physical and psychological abuse persisted to such a disturbing degree at a teen treatment center near Rexford so as to warrant permanent revocation of the facility’s license, and the decision by state officials to summarily remove 27 children from its campus was the correct remedy to prevent future trauma.

That’s according to an administrative judge’s order upholding actions taken by the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) in July 2019, when allegations of corporal punishment and rampant abuse at Ranch for Kids prompted the state to intervene just weeks after gaining oversight of the facility and other programs like it, touching off an unprecedented investigation into the program’s depraved history.

DPHHS officials announced the administrative order on Wednesday and released new details from their expansive probe, including allegations of sexual and physical abuse as well as assault.

In a conference call with the Beacon, DPHHS Deputy Chief Legal Counsel Nicholas Domitrovich said the investigation included more than 100 interviews with former staff members and participants at Ranch for Kids, as well as other witnesses whose testimony demonstrated a pervasive culture of abuse that spanned years, and culminated in the administrative finding.

The investigation continued to unfold even after state officials removed the children from the private alternative youth program amid complaints that had escalated in frequency and severity, triggering the state’s intervention. The decision to remove the children and shut down the Ranch for Kids was rare if not unprecedented, Domitrovich said, and the judge’s order provides validation.

“You hear the expression where there’s smoke there’s fire, and in this case there was a thick blanket of black smoke over the Ranch for Kids,” Domitrovich said. “This was the rare situation where we determined this couldn’t be fixed or temporarily suspended. This just needed to be stopped and stopped forever.”

The administrative hearing officer affirmed the state’s decision by ruling that Ranch for Kids committed violations of its Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Program (PAARP) license with the state, and failed to put forth any evidence to refute the allegations.

“We are pleased with the fair hearing decision,” said DPHHS Acting Director Erica Johnston. “But even more important, we continue to keep the children who lived this nightmare in our thoughts as they continue to heal, and work to move on with their lives.”

The judge’s lengthy decision details an investigation that revealed “egregious, chronic, and persistent child abuse and neglect,” including evidence of students being physically hit, kicked, body slammed, and spit on by staff, and numerous instances of excessive discipline, such as forcing teens on 15-20 mile walks along remote U.S. Forest Service roads in harsh conditions.

“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 felt safe,” DPHHS Deputy Director Laura Smith said.

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.

“Given the horrors that these children likely faced as infants and their resulting mental and physical medical conditions, they needed a program that would help them create and form lasting relationships,” according to the administrative order, issued by Hearing Officer Jeffrey M. Doud. “Instead, they were re-traumatized on a daily basis through isolation from adults and their peers.”

In July 2019, a new state law transferred authority of the PAARP programs to DPHHS. Prior to the new law, DPHHS did not have licensing authority over the programs, Domitrovich said, which were instead regulated by a board composed primarily of people who owned such programs.

The investigation began with a call to the state’s child abuse hotline in June 2019 and was taken over the following month when the new law transferred oversight authority to the health department’s Quality Assurances Division.

“The regulatory framework that existed before allowed these programs to kind of game the system, and the new law has helped us establish a more stringent regulatory environment, and a safer environment for children,” Domitrovich said.

A separate criminal investigation involving Ranch for Kids led by both state authorities with the Department of Justice and Lincoln County law enforcement ran parallel to the DPHHS’ probe, Domitrovich said, and the results of that investigation have been forwarded to the Lincoln County Attorney’s Office.

William Sutley, the owner of Ranch for Kids who is alleged to have physically assaulted a program participant, did not return telephone messages from the Beacon.

Matthew Lowy, the attorney who represented the Ranch for Kids at the administrative hearing, said his case against the state’s determination to revoke the facility’s license centered on whether it was procedurally correct, given that it effectively bypassed his client’s due process rights.

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