GREAT FALLS, Mont. – Montana officials removed 27 children from a youth treatment facility due to allegations of egregious, chronic and persistent child abuse and neglect, authorities said Tuesday.
The allegations include physical and psychological abuse and assaults of children by staff at the Ranch for Kids in Rexford, including an allegation that a student was shot at with a nail gun, state health officials said.
The private facility’s license was been suspended, but executive director William Sutley says he wants to reopen, adding that the decision to pull the youths from the program will traumatize them.
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The Department of Public Health and Human Services said the children were removed Tuesday and officials were trying to contact parents and make plans to reunify families or help find suitable placement for the 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,” DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan said in an email.
On its website, the Ranch for Kids said its program offers an “effective, compassionate treatment program” for children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and Reactive Attachment Disorder, and that it “serves as a bridge of hope and healing for hurting families.”
Founded in 1994 in Wyoming as a private, not-for-profit licensed adoption agency, the Ranch For Kids Project officially moved to Montana in the early 2000s near Eureka. The facility's website says it primarily provides services to adopted children from Russia.
The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation aided in removing the children, and a full investigation was underway, sheriff's deputies said in a statement.
DPHHS said reports include consistent and chronic allegations of physical and psychological abuse, as well as medical neglect.
Students, ages 11-17, allegedly were hit, kicked, body slammed and spit on by staff. The staff was also accused of inflicting persistent psychological abuse on children and using excessive discipline, including 15-20 mile walks on remote forest service roads in harsh conditions, with improper or no shoes. They were also accused of withholding food, shooting a nail gun at a student and prolonged isolation.
Other allegations include children not receiving critical medical attention, medications not being properly administered, stored or regulated and runaways not being reported in a consistent or timely manner to law enforcement.
DPHHS says the allegations of abuse have escalated in both frequency and severity in recent months.
“We have carefully staffed this process to ensure that the children are in a safe, trauma-informed place with needed care and proper nutrition,” DPHHS officials said.
Sutley, whose mother Joyce E. Sterkel founded Ranch for Kids, criticized the state for removing the children from the facility.
“No problems were solved, not for the parents, not for the kids, not for us, not for the state,” he said.
Sutley said he was meeting with staff Tuesday when he was told he was needed in the front office. It was there he was given an emergency protective order by law enforcement and his license was suspended immediately.
He said he will go through the legal process to get the temporary restriction on the license removed.
"Hopefully we will satisfy any concerns," he said. "We're not going anywhere as Ranch for Kids. You can take a wrecking ball to this building and destroy it. You can destroy my business. But you're never going to destroy the human spirit."
Sutley said this has forced the ranch to look inward and evaluate what happened, but denies there was any abuse.
“We’re here to provide a place for hope and healing for hurting kids,” he said. “When you don’t provide for basic needs, when you don’t provide for safety needs, you will never build trust in a relationship. And we are all about connections and relationships. Doing things that would be abusive and neglectful to kids is everything we are against."
Sutley said he is not a licensed clinician, but added, "I have more experience with this population of kids than any other clinician on the planet."
This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Montana Ranch for Kids has 27 children removed over abuse allegation