HILLSBORO, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico's child services department said Saturday that at least one of the nine teenagers reported missing from a rural ranch for troubled youth is back with his parents.
"I can confirm that one, possibly more, have been returned," Child, Youth and Families Department spokesman Henry Varela told The Associated Press. Varela added that the agency is working with the other families.
Hours ahead of the confirmation, New Mexico state police had issued a statement saying they had information that one or more children had been returned to their families, but until authorities could "physically confirm their well-being" they planned to continue the search and keep the Amber Alert issued for the boys in effect.
The search comes after the Albuquerque Journal reported last week that state authorities were investigating claims that teenage boys were beaten and forced to wear leg shackles and handcuffs for minor violations of rules at the unlicensed program.
A search warrant was executed Friday as part of the investigation of abuse at the Tierra Blanca High Country Youth Program, located at a 30,000-acre compound in high desert country, about seven miles from Hillsboro. Officials said that the teens, ages 13 and 17, weren't at the property in Sierra County, nor was program operator Scott Chandler, who has been named a person of interest in the case.
Ranch attorney Pete Domenici Jr. said in a statement Friday that the boys had been "on a previously scheduled activity away from the ranch for several days. They are safe and have already been picked up by their parents, or their parents are en route to pick them up."
Domenici accused the state of escalating the situation by failing to agree to an emergency hearing in a lawsuit the ranch filed this week over what the suit contends was an improperly handled investigation.
However, authorities issued an Amber Alert for the teenager minutes after Domenici's statement was released.
Program operators had been ordered to send the kids back to their parents or surrender them to the state after staff members were accused of beating and shackling students.
The operators of the ranch, Scott and Collette Chandler, deny any children have been harmed and filed a lawsuit this week accusing investigators of targeting the ranch for closure following a fatal car crash involving students.
The operators also said investigators have been illegally interviewing students and telling parents to pull their children from the program by Friday or face abuse charges. Their lawsuit said at least one family was contacted directly by Gov. Susana Martinez, a claim her office denies.
During a press conference earlier this week Chandler said Tierra Blanca has been operating for nearly 20 years. Its website promises a program for unmanageable kids that offers a balance of love, discipline and structure.