State health officials Wednesday released a ruling from an administrative law judge that permanently revoked the license of Ranch for Kids. Ranch for Kids was a private therapeutic facility for children in northwest Montana. Montana Public Radio’s Aaron Bolton is here to walk us through this development.
Corin Cates-Carney: Before we get into the decision, can you remind us what Ranch for Kids was?
Aaron Bolton: Ranch for Kids was what the state called a Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Program, PAARP for short. These programs are aimed at providing therapy to minors with severe behavioral issues. Ranch for Kids was based out of an old school up in Rexford near the Canadian border. Its owner Bill Sutley said it specialized in helping adopted children who weren’t bonding with their adoptive parents and also kids with fetal alcohol syndrome. Parents from across the country would spend thousands of dollars to send their children to Ranch for Kids for months or even up to a year or more at a time with hope they would receive the therapeutic care they were promised.
Corin Cates-Carney: How did this ranch end up getting shut down by the state?
Aaron Bolton: In June of 2019, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) received a tip about possible abuse at Ranch for Kids.
DPHHS Attorney Nicholas Domitrovitch says that tip launched a really large investigation.
"We went into a massive investigation mode, interviewing, I think well over 100, both former participants and perhaps community witnesses and other people around the country to try to recreate the story of the prior, almost 10 years, of operation."
A little over a month into that investigation, DPHHS decided it had enough evidence to remove the 27 children living at Ranch for Kids at that time, citing physical, psychological and emotional abuse. The department also decided to permanently revoke the facility’s license.
Ranch for kids appealed, resulting in a week-long hearing that was held last winter. But an administrative law judge eventually sided with the health department, making the shutdown of Ranch For Kids final. That happened this October and the state says it waited until now to release the decision because it was waiting to see if Ranch for Kids would appeal. The timeline to do so has now run out.
Corin Cates-Carney: So the shutdown is final and details are now known for the first time about this week-long hearing that led to that ruling. What was revealed in that hearing?
Aaron Bolton: When the news broke back in 2019 about the removal of the children at Ranch for Kids, owner Bill Sutley refuted many of the allegations of physical abuse, but he did tell me in an interview at the time that it was standard punishment to force kids on what he called “therapy walks” that could last for up to 20 miles. He said kids always had proper clothing, food and water.
According to the judge’s decision released this week, people who attended Ranch for Kids testified that employees would follow them in a car while they walked barefoot in the snow for miles or were forced to carry a sack of rocks.
One family reportedly said their nine-year-old child with clubfoot was forced to endure these walks and had to undergo months of physical therapy after returning home.
According to the hearing documents, former participants also say they were denied adequate food as punishment. One former worker testified that one child lost so much weight that "his calves were smaller than his kneecaps."
There was also testimony that Ranch for Kids staff members encouraged their colleagues to tase children and that staff and older kids at the ranch sexually abused younger, more vulnerable kids. There were also allegations of forced labor at owner Bill Sutley and other staff member’s homes.
Judge Jeffrey Doud wrote in his decision, "The vivid, and often difficult testimony of the former participants, employee, and medical providers regarding RFK treatment of the participants was extremely disturbing."
Corin Cates-Carney: All of that was described in these hearing documents we’re learning about. Have people who attended Ranch for Kids spoken up now that the shutdown of the ranch is final?
Aaron Bolton: I was able to get in touch with Dasha Springer, who says she attended Ranch for Kids from 2007 to 2009. She wasn’t involved in the state’s investigation. Here’s how she reacted to the news that Ranch for Kids will never be able to operate again.
"I am jumping for joy. I am so happy that people, family members, the government, believed us. Remember, Bill Sutley called us the troubled kids, that we were the liars, and stuff like that. This time there was enough evidence, there was enough proof that people actually listened to our stories, listened to what we had to say."
Corin Cates-Carney: Has there been a response from Ranch for Kids or its owner Bill Sutley?
Aaron Bolton: I wasn’t able to get in touch with Sutley, but I did speak with his attorney Matthew Lowy. He said the decision was a moot point because Ranch for Kids lost the lease to the Rexford school it was using to house kids. But Lowy said while there were a lot of "concerning facts" about how Ranch for Kids treated children, he says DPHHS’ decision to revoke the facility’s license in the first place was disappointing.
"It would have been much better if DPHHS had taken an opportunity to help Ranch for Kids bring themselves into compliance with the standards of best practices, and do a better job of providing better treatment for troubled children."
Corin Cates-Carney: Is this the end of the road for this case?
Aaron Bolton: This is the end of this case with regards to Ranch for Kids’ license. But The Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation has been conducting a criminal investigation in the Ranch for Kids case. Montana Department of Justice spokesperson John Barnes told me in an email that the case will soon be turned over to the Lincoln County Attorney’s office for review and possible charges. But there’s no definitive timeline for that to happen. There have been also been news reports of several civil cases filed against the facility. Attorney Matthew Lowy said he isn’t involved in those cases and didn’t know how many there are.
Corin Cates-Carney: Aaron, thanks for your reporting.
Aaron Bolton: Happy to do it.