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License revoked for "Ranch For Kids" in Lincoln County

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Posted at 10:22 AM, Dec 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-09 12:57:47-05

GREAT FALLS — The license for the Ranch For Kids in Lincoln County has been permanently revoked due to "persistent child abuse and neglect," according to the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS).

DPHHS said in a news release on Wednesday that an administrative law judge ruled in favor of actions taken by DPHHS to remove 27 children in July 2019 from Ranch For Kids (RFK), known as a "a private alternative adolescent residential or outdoor program (PAARP)." The facility is near Rexford in northwestern Montana.

DPHHS removed children and teens from RFK to due to serious allegations of egregious, chronic, and persistent child abuse and neglect. The age of the children ranged from 11 to 17. As a result of the decision, DPHHS has permanently revoked RFK’s PAARP license.

“We are pleased with the fair hearing decision,” said acting DPHHS 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.”

The decision lists numerous activities that occurred at RFK that all violated state law, including:

  • The use of abusive disciplinary walks, including having participants walk extreme distances, often at night and in the wilderness without weather-appropriate clothing or footwear.
  • The use of restricting food for participants, withholding phone calls to parents, and withholding medical attention for participants—including for those who were expressing suicidal ideations.
  • The withholding of medical attention for participants while sick or after injury.
  • Physical, and verbal abuse of participants. And, failure to report sexual abuse between participants and individuals who had direct access to participants.
  • Failure to adequately inform or train staff regarding the minimum training requirements, including mandatory child abuse reporting laws.
  • Forcing participants to complete labor projects of an unreasonable nature, duration, and sometimes risk, including digging trenches and construction projects at RFK staff members’ properties.

The decision states: ‘By preponderance of the evidence, it is clear that DPHHS made a sufficient evidentiary showing that abuse and neglect of these vulnerable children was occurring to warrant immediate suspension of RFK’s operations. The vivid, and often difficult, testimony of the former participants, employee, and medical providers regarding RFK treatment of the participants was extremely disturbing…. It is even more concerning given the vulnerable population that RFP supposedly served.’

The ruling further states: ‘Given the horrors that these children likely faced as infants and their resulting mental and physical medical conditions, they needed a program that would help them create and form lasting relationships. Instead, they were retraumatized on a daily basis through isolation from adults and their peers.’

The ruling concludes: ‘Simply put, DPHHS has carried its burden, by a preponderance of the substantial, competent evidence in the record, to show that RFK was not meeting the minimum standards required under the applicable PAARP statutes and rules. When the totality of the proven accusations against RFK are considered, this conclusion becomes strikingly clear.’

The removals occurred with support from law enforcement (Montana Department of Justice and local law enforcement) to ensure the safety of both youth and child protection specialists who conducted the removals.

In June 2019, a call to the Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline led to an investigation revealing chronic abuse and neglect. The hotline call led to an investigation revealing chronic abuse and neglect reported by numerous witnesses, included previous staff, students, law enforcement, forest service workers, and neighbors in the area.

In July 2019, a new state law transferred authority of the PAARP programs to DPHHS. Prior to July 1, 2019, DPHHS did not have licensing authority over these programs. A list of currently licensed PAAR facilities in MT can be found here.