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Ranch For Kids Director Defends Staff Amid Abuse Allegations

Aaron Bolton
Ranch For Kids' offices and treatment center in Rexford.

The director of a private therapeutic treatment center for kids in northwestern Montana says he plans to appeal the state’s suspension of his license to operate.

Tuesday, state health officials removed more than two dozen kids from the Ranch for Kids in Rexford with a court order, citing “egregious, chronic, and persistent child abuse.”

Bill Sutley is the Director of the Ranch for Kids.

“Regardless of what the state says or what they believe or whether they temporarily suspended our license 

Credit Aaron Bolton
Ranch For Kids Staff walk through the hallway where young boys and girls were housed.

— and certainly we’re going to go through the legal process — but we have to solve problems and face crises, that’s what winners and champions do, and that’s what our team is prepared to do,” Sutley says. 

The Montana State Health Department announced on Tuesday that an ongoing child welfare investigation had been launched into the ranch following allegations of psychological and physical abuse.

Lincoln County and state law enforcement are also investigating potential criminal actions. The 27 children aged 11 to 17 have been removed from Lincoln County where the ranch is located, according to local law enforcement, and taken to an undisclosed location.

A spokesperson for the state health department says children are “in a safe place,” and did not provide additional details.

Department spokesperson Jon Ebelt wrote in a statement, “we’ve been able to make contact with virtually all of the parents. Some of the children have already been reunited with their parents and we anticipate more in the coming days.”

He says the department is working to assist parents to identify safe, trauma-informed alternative placements.

Bryan Lockerby, the administrator of the state Division of Criminal Investigation says there are two ongoing parallel tracks of investigation.

Lockerby says the Montana state health department is looking into the allegations of threats to child welfare, which has resulted in the agency suspending the Ranch for Kids operating license.

“And then there’s the support that we're providing to the sheriff's office and county attorney, as far as the criminal investigation, which is going to take quite a bit of time,” Lockerby said.

He says not all of the interviews with the children removed from the ranch have been completed.

“I think it’s important to realize that children, of course, are going to be more susceptible to trauma; there are allegations of trauma at the camp," Lockerby says. "The fact that health and human services and law enforcement showed up yesterday and removed children is another element of trauma. So interviewing these kids individually and giving them the opportunity to decompress and understand what is happening in the world is going to take some time.” 

According to the state health department, kids at the program were allegedly hit, kicked, body slammed and spit on by staff.

The agency’s report also states they have been informed about children not receiving medical attention when critically needed, staff using excessive discipline, and persistent physiological abuse on children.

Back on the Ranch for Kids, Director Bill Sutley says the alleged physical abuse couldn’t have happened because the main facility in Rexford is under video surveillance. 

“Sixteen cameras in the building. Yeah, I suppose things could happen outdoors. But are you really gonna kick a kid and spit on a kid and throw him to the ground? 'Oh, we can do that but only off camera.' That's, that's not — come on,” Sutley said. 

But he did acknowledge some of the state’s reported findings, such as kids running away. He says it sometimes took hours before staff would alert authorities.

“It depends on the kid, depends on situation, depends on their history, on how quickly we notify authorities," Sutley says. "Is this a kid that has run away before and they stay real close? Or is this a kid we think is going to, you know, leave the county? There's a difference there, right.”

He also said ranch staff would have kids go on up to 16-mile walks on remote roads in the middle of the night as a recourse for running away.

He called it a “therapeutic walk."

Sutley says if you’ve never watched a kid go through that experience you might think it’s mean.

“I mean, if you consider forcing someone under duress to walk 16 miles down a road in adverse conditions in the middle of the night; That sounds really bad, right?"

Sutley says corporal punishment can be abuse, but, “discipline can be done in a loving and caring way, and that only comes through relationship.”

He said the Ranch for Kids’ goal is to provide a place of healing for what he called hurting families and hurting kids. He says punitive punishment of kids is not compatible with that goal and he doesn’t think, “anyone has broken any laws.”

Sutley also cast doubt on some of the children’s ability to be trusted.

“Some of them, they’re going to say whatever they want. Most of our kids are here for false allegations of abuse from their parents," Sutley says. "So, I don’t know if you’re going get the truth out of the kids. Some of the parents say, well, 'if their lips are moving  you know they’re lying.'”

Ranch for Kids Director Sutley says that if a person did abuse and neglect kids according to what has been alleged in state reports, that person should be in jail, and he hasn’t been arrested. Sutley has 10 days to file a protest for the ranch’s suspended license.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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