Raid at treatment program gets mixed reaction

This Jan. 31, 2012, file photo shows The Ranch for Kids, a working ranch for troubled adopted children, founded by Joyce Sterkel in Eureka, Mont. The state of Montana removed 27 children from the ranch Tuesday and suspended its state license after receiving allegations of physical and psychological abuse.

HELENA, Mont. — Reaction to the state’s shutdown of a private adolescent treatment program in northwestern Montana over allegations of physical and psychological abuse range from relief to anger to defiance.

Some former participants and staff said they were glad the state removed more than two dozen children from the Ranch for Kids on July 23 and suspended its license.

Two mothers said the program helped their daughters and the orchestrated removal traumatized them.

The program director said he planned to challenge the suspension of his license and hoped to re-open the facility that treats children with issues caused by maternal use of alcohol or drugs while pregnant or an inability to bond with adoptive parents.

The state health department and law enforcement coordinated a removal of the children after a judge signed petitions giving the state temporary custody of the 27 children ranging in age from 11 to 17.

Former staff member Nia Stoken told the Missoulian she felt “a huge sigh of relief that the kids that were there are getting freed from the hell that they’ve experienced.”

A former participant, Jennifer Downard, said she was “mad that it took this long for the state to do something about this,” because “no one believed us or listened to us when we were there.”

Over the past decade, the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Treatment Program board received 10 complaints about the ranch, but it continued to operate.

After a series of stories by the Missoulian, Montana’s Legislature passed a bill giving oversight of such programs to the state health department rather than the labor department.

The Department of Labor and Industry began sharing information with the health department in May as they began to transition oversight of the programs.

It was in May that the board wrote to the Ranch for Kids citing actions it found to be abusive or unprofessional, including miles-long “therapeutic walks” and less appetizing food as consequences for poor behavior and removal of mattresses from children who wet the bed.

The health department cited escalating reports of “egregious abuse” at the ranch in seeking to remove the children.

Downard told the Missoulian she saw staff berate adopted children, saying things like: “Your parents gave you up for a reason; they didn’t want you. You’re useless.”

The mothers of two daughters who were removed during Tuesday’s action said the program helped their daughters and if they had believed otherwise, they wouldn’t have been there.

Clare Higgins of Pennsylvania — a supervisor for a family mentor and advocacy network that helps families with children with behavioral problems — said she planned to file a complaint with the state.

“This is not how it should be handled,” she told the Great Falls Tribune. “I don’t want money. I just don’t want it to happen to other children.”

Higgins and Tane Larrabee of Hawaii said they heard from the Ranch for Kids before they heard from the state about what had happened.

Higgins said the girls were taken out by law enforcement officers with guns and were not told where they were going. Her 16-year-old daughter was “sobbing, petrified and crying.”

The program was life-saving and life-changing for her family, Higgins said. “I found the staff to be unbelievably loving, patient and caring.”

Health department spokesman Jon Ebelt said the state removed the children before contacting their parents because there were reports of weapons on the ranch, which created a safety risk for the caseworkers who conducted the removals and the law enforcement who supported the operation.

The program’s executive director, Bill Sutley, said he planned to challenge the state’s suspension of his program’s license.

“We can talk about therapeutic walks, we can talk about abuse, we can talk about neglect, but unless you’ve emotionally experienced living with these kids, you’re not going to get it,” he told the Missoulian .

Sutley said the state’s removal of the children was more damaging than helpful.

“If you want to help and be part of the solution, let’s talk,” Sutley said. “If you don’t, get out of my way and leave me the hell alone, because you’re not helping. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. I guess that’s how I feel about it.”

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