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A new day for state's troubled teen industry; allegations against Ranch for Kids span a decade



REXFORD — Last week's unprecedented state intervention in removing 27 children from the Ranch for Kids here marked a watershed moment for the private teen treatment industry in Montana.

On July 1, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services took oversight of 14 programs, most of them private and for-profit, that previously fell under an essentially self-regulating board housed in the state Labor Department. That agency conceded earlier this year in a legislative hearing that it was ill-equipped to regulate the industry. The shift to DPHHS allows the state to investigate whole programs, not just individual cases of abuse and neglect.

Most of those programs, with annual tuition and fees ranging as high as $100,000, are scattered in the isolated reaches of far northwestern Montana. By the time the health department took regulatory authority of the programs, it was already actively investigating allegations of abuse and neglect at the Ranch for Kids. State Sen. Diane Sands, the Missoula lawmaker who carried the legislation to move oversight to the health department, said Saturday that "I expect, when the state does a full review, more of these programs will be shut down."

Meanwhile, the investigation into the Ranch for Kids is ongoing, and state law enforcement is simultaneously investigating possible criminal charges from the allegations that have surfaced.

"DPHHS has allegations going back 10 years. That also means our criminal investigations go back 10 years," said Division of Criminal Justice Administrator Bryan Lockerby.

“In my career spanning almost 40 years, I haven’t seen something of this scale before.”

It was also 10 years ago when an inspector from the Department of Labor wrote in court documents that Bill Sutley, executive director at Ranch for Kids, refused to let him into the facility before an inspection.

Inspector Rick Cockrell wrote in court documents in a 2009 case related to other licensing issues that, in personally inspecting the other 20 teen treatment facilities at the time, he had never been turned away. Cockrell wrote in his affidavit that he perceived the encounter with Sutley as "threatening," and asked local law enforcement to accompany him at the next visit.

Lincoln County Sheriff Darren Short told the Missoulian on Thursday that encounter, in part, is what spurred him to send more than half of his sworn officers to the Ranch for Kids removal operation earlier that week.

"That's kind of why they wanted the law enforcement presence they had," he said, "based on their prior history and their intel that they had gotten on Mr. Sutley."

Short first received notice of the effort to remove the children — 27 boys and girls, ages roughly 11-17 — on July 12. An official at the Division of Criminal Investigation, a branch of the Montana Department of Justice, called to ask if his office could meet in Kalispell to discuss "something happening in the Eureka area."

"So I really didn't know what their plans or intent was at that point," he said.

After the initial July 12 gathering, personnel from the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, state Division of Criminal Investigation, Department of Public Health and Human Services, along with Flathead County Sheriff's Office and the Kalispell Police Department, met again several times to set the blueprints for logistics, people and placement, Short said.

Since 2014, the Ranch for Kids has been housed in the town's former school building on the main road through town. The program's former sites were more out of view, on back roads and an actual ranch. Its current location presented more challenges for law enforcement, who were mindful of the children heading toward Lake Koocanusa and retirees strolling toward the post office from the surrounding homes.

"We had to contact all the outside agencies," Short said. "In case something went sideways."

The Lincoln County Sheriff's Office's role was strictly ensuring safety of the children, staff at Ranch for Kids and in the community, much like a civil standby for a domestic case or when a search warrant is executed, Short said. State law enforcement joined the operation on the request from the health department and with permission of local law enforcement, Lockerby said.

Jon Ebelt, a spokesman for the health department, said reports of weapons on site at Ranch for Kids had "created a potential safety risk for the youth and our 20 child welfare workers who conducted the removals."

The removal was unprecedented, Ebelt said, in the extensive planning that went into the drawing board before Tuesday morning.

"We needed to make sure we had things set up to ensure their needs were met once we transported them off site, including medical, mental health and nutrition needs," Ebelt said in an email.

On July 23, 20 caseworkers joined 15 law enforcement officers — including 11 of the 20 sworn officers at the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, and four from the state Division of Criminal Investigation — and made their way to the Ranch for Kids property.

Down the road, a hostage rescue team made up of Kalispell police and Flathead County Sheriff's deputies were staged in an armored vehicle.

"Just in case," Short said.


In an interview with the Missoulian this week, Sutley denied any notion that he is a dangerous person.

"I don't know why they think there was going to be violence," he said.

Sutley said the Ranch staff was heading into Day Two of training in de-escalation techniques Tuesday morning. They had just wrapped up their morning prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance when his attention was rerouted.

"One of the staff came in and said, 'You're needed in the office,'" Sutley said. "There were law enforcement officials and state officials. They said, 'We're here to take your kids.'"

Sutley told the Missoulian he challenged their authority to remove the children, then asked if he could speak with the children and staff before they were swept away. His request was denied and a deputy stayed with him to ensure he and the children remained separated, Sutley said.

For the next two hours, caseworkers guided the Ranch children into more than a dozen rented cars, collecting what clothes they needed.

The kids were shuttled out of Lincoln County to an undisclosed location. One mother told the Missoulian this week her daughter is now in Missoula. (See related story). State law enforcement is still conducting interviews and tracking down former students and staff to corroborate any allegations.

“It is important for people to understand we have to move slowly on this and be compassionate,” Lockerby said.

Sutley's response to the claims against Ranch for Kids has been one repeated throughout the time that programs like his have battled for regulatory control.

He said the state's policies don't allow room for programs like Ranch for Kids to develop and administer the proprietary treatment that he believes these children need.

In the Ranch for Kids' case, all of the residents go there to learn how to live with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder. Many were adopted overseas, mostly from Russia, and the program has a Russian translator on staff, according to records obtained by the Missoulian. They find their way to the Ranch after all other options have been exhausted, he said.

2019 Jul 28