On July 23, 2019, the State of Montana Department of Health & Human Services (DPHHS) removed 27 children from the Ranch for Kids (RFK), a private Christian adolescent treatment program in Rexford, Montana, following multiple reports of physical and psychological abuse and neglect.
DPHHS officials received reports that children were beaten by staff, denied proper medical care, and subjected to damaging disciplinary measures. This triggered a multi-phase investigation, including interviews with former staff, counselors, and enrollees. Based on the results of the investigation, DPHHS and Child Protective Services were granted a court order to remove the children from RFK and suspend its business license. In what DPHHS Deputy Director Laura Smith called “one of the most complex welfare and operational events” the agency has ever seen, DPHHS, with the help of more than half of the sworn officers of the Lincoln County Sheriff Department, entered the premises and took the children, who range in age from 11 to 17.
DPHHS said in a formal statement, “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 has been working to reunify the children with their parents or help find suitable placement. The agency set up a toll-free hotline — 1-888-200-8002 — for the children’s parents and guardians, and for people with information about RFK.
For-profit facilities such as RFK take advantage of the desperation of parents and guardians with troubled children, in some cases charging more than $100,000 per year. They often provide unsafe, unhealthy environments for vulnerable children and cut off their access to the outside world. RFK, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, specifically targeted parents with adopted children from overseas, mostly Russia. According to its website, RFK provides Christian respite care for “at risk” adopted children, including those who suffer from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, trauma, abuse, neglect and post-institutionalization behavior problems.
RFK is only one of 14 therapeutic residential programs with a history of abuse and neglect, leading in some cases to suicides or suicide attempts. Prior to July 1, 2019, such programs were licensed by the State of Montana Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Programs (PAARP) under the Department of Labor and Industry. In 2011, RFK tried and failed to avoid regulation by claiming a religious exemption. Complaints of abuse at RFK has previously been made to PAARP, but those reports were kept secret and never sent to the state health department.
In January of 2019, the Missoulian newspaper ran a series on PAARP and its ineffectiveness in regulating these private alternative treatment programs for adolescents. Their findings were shocking:
- The majority of PAARP board members were from the industry it regulates, licenses, and investigates;
- Complaints to the PAARP remained secret unless the majority of the board decided to take disciplinary action;
- Of the 58 complaints filed with and investigated by PAARP in 12 years, there was not a single significant disciplinary action taken against any program;
- Children with sometimes serious emotional, physical and mental disorders were cared for by unlicensed and unqualified counselors;
- Students are often forbidden from communicated with parents or guardians.
The Missoulian specifically investigated RFK and found that there were no licensed therapists on staff, children did not have individual treatment plans, and parents had to pay extra for their children to see an outside local therapist. Students were disciplined for trying to run away and for harming themselves. Methods included severe seclusion, restricted physical activity, and taking away mattresses for children who wet the bed. Only the best-behaved children were allowed one weekly 15-minute phone call. RFK’s policies promoted “less formal” therapy and counseling and “tough love.”
After the series ran in the Missoulian, the state legislature passed a series of laws which went into effect on July 1, 2019, dissolving the PAARP and moving regulation from the Department of Labor and Industry to DPHHS. DPHHS had already been investigating complaints about RFK from several sources, including former students and staff, law enforcement, and U.S. Forest Service personnel. Reports of abuse include forcing children to walk 15 to 20 miles in harsh weather on remote roads with inappropriate shoes at night, withholding food, prolonged isolation, shooting a child with a nail gun, withholding critical medical attention, and failing to administer or properly regulate medication.
While the recent closure of the facility is an enormous step in the right direction, RFK should have been shut down when the reports of abuse were first made 10 years ago. The victims who had to endure the abuse have suffered tremendously. With the change in oversight to DPHHS, it is possible more facilities like RFK will be shut down due to abuse.
The attorneys at Edmiston & Colton Law Firm and Crew Janci have represented victims of abuse and have obtain positive outcomes for former abuse victims. If you or a loved one were abused at Ranch for Kids or another private adolescent treatment program, please know that you are not to blame. These programs took advantage of their power and preyed on innocent victims. You shouldn’t have to carry the burden of the consequences for a lifetime. Please contact the attorneys at Edmiston & Colton Law Firm and Crew Janci to learn more.