Ranch for Kids operators respond to allegations from international and state authorities
By Myers Reece
August 2, 2012 / flatheadbeacon.com
On the afternoon of June 28, a team of Russian government officials accompanied by a television crew from Moscow showed up at the front gate of a ranch for troubled foreign adoptees in secluded Northwest Montana.
The Russians were a surreal sight for this remote area, which is nestled nearly 200 miles from the nearest interstate and just a few miles south of Canada. For employees at the Ranch for Kids Project, they were a decidedly unwanted sight.
Leading the Russians was Pavel Astakhov, the country’s children’s rights commissioner appointed by former President Dmitry Medvedev. Astakhov has called the Ranch for Kids a “trash can for unwanted children” and a “penal colony” for Russian adoptees, while alleging mistreatment.
Astakhov wanted to see the kids and the ranch’s conditions when he traveled to Montana, but the Russians were turned away at the entrance gate. Upon returning home, Astakhov demanded the facility be shut down.
Sitting at her ranch a month after the encounter, Ranch for Kids Project founder and director Joyce Sterkel said she has nothing to hide. Letting the Russians past the gate would have violated the trust and wishes of parents, she said. And she believes Astakhov’s trip to Montana was a publicity stunt designed to be a test case for a bilateral agreement that stipulates how adoptions are handled between Russia and the U.S.
Sterkel is worried about the agreement’s potential impact on the rights of adoptees and their families within the United States. The bilateral agreement was signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year and ratified by Russia’s upper house last month. Many of the Ranch for Kids Project’s children and young adults are Russian.
Sterkel dismissed Astakhov’s allegations of mistreatment and said her organization has been praised for its work with troubled adopted children. Parents often bring their kids to her, she said, when they have nowhere else to turn.
“Virtually everything he has said isn’t the truth,” Sterkel said in an interview on July 25. “He’s wrong. He’s got it upside down.”
Located outside of Eureka, the Ranch for Kids Project has gained national and global attention since opening in 1999 through coverage in news outlets such as CNN, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Newsweek. Hundreds of foreign adoptees have come to the ranch over the past decade.
Past attention has largely focused on the facility’s off-the-beaten path location and approach to dealing with troubled foreign adoptees, particularly Russians. Currently 10 out of the ranch’s 25 boys and girls are Russian, while others are from Haiti, Brazil, Guatemala, Ukraine and elsewhere, Sterkel said.
According to its website, the Ranch for Kids Project is a “respite care home for adopted children who are experiencing difficulties in their families due to reactive attachment disorder, prenatal exposure to alcohol and drugs as well as struggling with adoption and post institutional issues.”
Sterkel says many of the kids suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a term used to describe birth defects caused by a mother’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy. That includes fetal alcohol syndrome.
The non-denominational Christian-based ranch says it seeks to help these kids by providing a “structured, consistent and repetitious environment” that encourages new habits and positive mentoring. Days are defined by routine, with time allotted for chores, recreation, school, spirituality and life skills.
Adoption advocates and parents have lauded the ranch for its work with children who are often deeply troubled, sexually abusive and violent. But critics, including a clinical neuropsychologist who is nationally known for his work with foreign adoptees, question the effectiveness of its approach. There are no therapists, psychologists or psychiatrists on staff.
“It’s like a vacation at the beach – we’re always better when at the beach,” Dr. Ronald S. Federici said about the Ranch for Kids in a 2010 New York Times article, explaining that permanent improvement in the kids requires rigorous medical and therapeutic treatment.
Sterkel says her ranch’s kids have usually already gone through therapy and, while some continue to seek outside treatment during their stay, they have arrived at her place because traditional therapeutic methods haven’t worked and they need to try something different. Many have severe psychological issues and brain damage, Sterkel said.
Parents pay $3,500 per month to send their adopted kids to the ranch, often saying they have exhausted all of their other options. Sharon Houlihan said her adopted 10-year-old son has fetal alcohol syndrome and is prone to violent streaks. He didn’t respond well to special-needs schools or therapy, she said, but he thrives at the Ranch for Kids.
“It’s a safe and calming environment for him without a lot of sensory influences that tend not to do well for him,” Houlihan said. “He’s able to focus better and overall just do better.”
She also refuted claims that the children are isolated, abandoned or mistreated.
“A lot of accusations have been made and they’re just not true,” she said. “These kids are loved and treated very well.”
But Astakhov said in comments carried by Russian news outlet RIA Novosti that a lack of information has raised questions about the facility’s quality of care.
“These children are completely isolated from the outside world, which is grounds for violating their rights,” he said. “It has not been made clear to us whether the children receive the necessary help and treatment, which is why the condition of the Russian kids at the ranch causes concerns.”
The troubles that Ranch for Kids has with the state echo some of Astakhov’s worries, with state officials citing safety concerns and arguing that the ranch hasn’t provided them with essential information on the kids. The ranch is currently engaged in two lawsuits with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, with the state seeking to shut down the facility.
The lawsuits were previously consolidated before a recent court order divided them into separate cases. The order was part of a series of actions by Lincoln County District Court Judge James Wheelis between July 20 and July 25, including one to set a trial date of Nov. 13 for the licensing case.
In the licensing case, the state says the Ranch for Kids hasn’t complied with licensing requirements through the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP) board. The dispute dates back to June 2010 when the board declined to renew the ranch’s provisional license.
Sterkel counters that her organization is now affiliated with a ministry and not subject to state licensing requirements. The ranch is currently operating without a state license.
According to court documents, a state inspection found a number of deficiencies at the ranch, including a lack of a disaster plan, no background checks on employees, no student handbook or statement on the rights of program participants and a failure to comply with building and fire codes.
Citing court documents, the Associated Press reported that Mary Tapper, PAARP’s attorney, also said Sterkel denied the board any information about the children.
“Because many of the children enrolled at RFK are reported to have severe emotional and disciplinary challenges, the Board sought this information for the protection of the health, safety and welfare of the children,” Tapper wrote.
After Sterkel declined to appear at a state hearing, the board issued a cease and desist order in June 2011 ordering the facility to quit operating or face “judicial remedies.” In an interview last week, Tapper said the Ranch for Kids is the only facility under her board’s jurisdiction without a license.
“All of the programs with the exception of Ranch for Kids have complied and received their licenses,” Tapper said.
While the licensing case is focused on whether the Ranch for Kids is exempt from state requirements because of its affiliation with a ministry, the building code issues have been separated into their own lawsuit. The building and electrical code issues date back to 2009.
On April 21 of that year, state building inspector Rick Cockrell said in a sworn affidavit that he traveled to the Ranch for Kids with members of the state’s Building Codes Bureau, a fire marshal and a Lincoln County law enforcement officer to conduct an inspection.
Cockrell said he requested the presence of law enforcement “because of what I perceived to be threatening behavior” by William Sutley, the ranch manager and Sterkel’s son, during a previous encounter. When the inspectors arrived on April 21, Sutley refused to allow an inspection.
“In my experience of personally inspecting buildings at approximately twenty other PAARP properties in this region of the state,” Cockrell wrote in his October 2009 affidavit, “there have been none of which I have been denied access. I have been allowed access to every building on these properties.”
Cockrell said the buildings, including some under construction, required state building permits and were subject to inspections by state law. Sutley argued that the ranch is exempt from state building requirements because it’s a private, residential facility. Cockrell issued a notice of violation and cease and desist order.
In October of 2009, the state Department of Labor and Industry filed a lawsuit against the Ranch for Kids, citing code violations and requesting inspectors to be allowed on site. The issue has been in court since.
On July 20 of this year, Judge Wheelis issued a court order requesting the ranch to comply with “building code and electrical code permit issues” within 20 days “in the interest of public health, safety, and welfare to move this matter toward a conclusion.”
If the Ranch for Kids fails to comply with the electrical requirements in Wheelis’ order within 20 days, its power will be shut down. Wheelis also said failure to comply could lead to a preliminary injunction “to order the Ranch for Kids to cease commercial and public use of the buildings in question.”
The judge said he is postponing setting a trial date until inspections are conducted at both of the ranch’s locations, Pinkham Ranch and Deep Springs Ranch, to “determine how such buildings are being used.” Ranch officials have argued that only some of the buildings on site are used by program participants while most are private residences.
In an interview, Sutley acknowledged refusing to let the inspectors on the property but denied ever being threatening. He maintained his stance that the ranch is a private, residential facility and not subject to commercial or public building requirements.
But even if they have disagreements, Sutley and Sterkel both said last week they are complying with the judge’s order.
“The reality of it is I don’t have a choice,” Sutley said. “It’s a court order.”
“They’re saying, ‘If you don’t comply, we’ll shut your power off,’” he continued. “It’s strong arming. It’s government encroachment. It’s about power, money and control.”
Sterkel said Astakhov is complicating matters by meddling in an issue he shouldn’t.
“We are working with the state of Montana to resolve any outstanding issues but we don’t need Mr. Astakhov in the middle of it,” she said.
She also expressed anger at what she perceives as cooperation between Montana and Russian officials.
“The word treason comes to mind,” she said. “Why would you collaborate with a foreign government?”
When Lincoln County Attorney Bernie Cassidy was contacted about a possible meeting with Russian leaders by an official from the National District Attorneys Association, he didn’t know quite what to think. He was told the official was calling at the request of the U.S. State Department.
“That’s not your everyday phone call,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy came to realize the strange proposal was legitimate and contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office because “this seems to be a little bit beyond the jurisdiction of a local prosecutor.” He also contacted a Russian official to schedule a meeting. Because Sterkel had sent a letter telling the Russians to stay off her property, Cassidy agreed only to meet at a separate location.
On the afternoon of June 28, Cassidy and Lincoln County Sheriff’s Deputy Bo Pitman met with Astakhov and two other Russian officials in the DUI booking room of Eureka’s town hall. Cassidy asked that the camera crew not be present because the matters were confidential. Ultimately, he said both sides had a lot of questions for the other.
“I haven’t heard from them since,” he said.
Sterkel says she told Russian officials not to come on June 28 because she was attending to other business. The U.S. Secretary of State’s office, she says, also asked them not to travel to Montana on that day.
“They came anyway,” Sterkel said. “Please explain that arrogance to me, for a foreign government to show up at an American property owner’s private place.”
“We are American citizens,” she continued. “Why should we have to be terrorized by a foreign government? We have sovereign rights. We are Americans.”
Sterkel has accused Cassidy of releasing the name of a girl from the ranch, which she says is a violation of confidentiality. Cassidy denies the claim but says a sheriff’s deputy gave a report to Russian officials that may have contained the girl’s name.
“Joyce Sterkel has said she is going to have my job before this is all done, so we’ll see where all of that goes,” Cassidy said, adding that he has a meeting scheduled with Sterkel this week.
In this quiet little corner of Montana, Cassidy said the whole situation, involving Russian officials and camera crews and international agreements, has been “bizarre.”
“At this point,” he said, “I’d say it’s not going to be a matter of the local county attorney’s office.”