Montana’s shutdown of alternative treatment center is final
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The state’s 2019 shutdown of an alternative teen treatment center in northwestern Montana is final, the Department of Public Health and Human Services said Wednesday.
An administrative law judge upheld the department’s removal of 27 children from The Ranch for Kids near Rexford, Montana, and its suspension of the facility’s license. The ranch did not appeal the Oct. 9 ruling, Jon Ebelt, spokesperson for the department, said Wednesday.
Bill Sutley, owner of The Ranch for Kids, did not return a call from the Missoulian seeking comment.
The health department removed children ranging in age from 11 to 17 from the ranch in July 2019 after an investigation turned up reports of egregious, chronic and persistent child abuse and neglect, the state said. One student reported being shot at with a nail gun, state health officials said.
The ranch billed itself as a therapeutic boarding school for children who were adopted from overseas and were not bonding with their adoptive parents or for children who suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome because their mothers drank while they were pregnant.
The children’s behavioral issues were punished through isolation, intimidation, forced miles-long walks and limiting food, an investigator found. The children were also denied medication that had been prescribed to them, the education program was inadequate and children were required to work at the personal residences of staffers, officials said.
“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.”
During the hearing, The Ranch for Kids did not bring any witnesses to rebut the testimony and allegations by former students, staff or law enforcement, the administrative law judge noted.
The investigation began with a call to the state’s child abuse hotline in June 2019 and it was taken over by the health department’s Quality Assurances Division under a 2019 law that moved the oversight of such alternative treatment programs to the health department. They were previously regulated by a board that was made up primary of people who owned such programs.
A series of articles by the Missoulian which showed, in part, that 58 complaints over a dozen years against such programs in Montana led to no sanctions, prompted the change in oversight.
The health department’s regulation began on July 1, 2019 and the children were removed three weeks later.
Officials with The Ranch for Kids acknowledged that its license should be revoked because it does not have a location to continue its operations, the administrative law judge noted.