HELENA — A three-week-old state law regulating private “outdoor” treatment facilities for troubled kids helped lead to action taken against one of the centers this week in northwest Montana, state health officials told MTN News Thursday.
The law, enacted by the Legislature this year in the wake of an investigate newspaper series outlining alleged abuses at the facilities in Montana, enabled the state to suspend the license of the Ranch for Kids in Rexford.
But publicity around passage of the law also encouraged more people to come forward about possible abuses at the Rexford facility, said Erica Johnston, operations services branch manager at the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
“I would credit the public awareness that was created during the legislative session with creating the atmosphere that allowed witnesses to come forward and present corroborating investigative responses that allowed us to act quickly,” she told MTN News.
State and local officials, armed with a state court order, removed 27 children from the Ranch for Kids on Tuesday.
DPHHS also issued an order suspending the facility’s license — a power granted to DPHHS just three weeks ago, when the new law took effect.
State officials said their investigation at the Ranch for Kids included allegations that children there had been hit, kicked, body-slammed and spit on by staff, and subjected to psychological abuse and excessive discipline, including 15-20-mile walks on wilderness roads in harsh conditions.
Ranch for Kids officials have denied that any abuse took place.
Director Rick Sutley didn’t return a message asking for comment Thursday, but has said he plans to fight the state decision to suspend the facility’s license.
Sutley and the ranch have 10 days to request an administrative hearing on the decision to suspend the license.
Before July 1, the facilities had been regulated by a Department of Labor board, whose members sometimes included owners of the facilities.
The Labor Department said Thursday the board had investigated some complaints against Ranch for Kids in recent years, and, in May, issued a proposed action saying the facility had been abusive and engaged in “unprofessional conduct” related to discipline of children.
The complaint has been transferred to the new regulator, DPHHS, the Labor Department said Thursday.
State and local officials also are conducting a criminal investigation into possible charges of child abuse and neglect.
Johnston said the investigation began several weeks ago after calls to the agency’s hot line on child abuse.
Bryan Lockerby, head of the Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation, said several experienced state criminal investigators helped the local county attorney’s and sheriff’s office with the investigation.
That investigation is continuing, he said Thursday, and the county attorney will make any decisions on filing charges.
Lockerby said some of the abuse allegations stem from as long as 10 years ago, and that it will take some time for investigators to examine the case.
“This is the type of case where we probably don’t have physical evidence,” he told MTN News. “We have witnesses, we have memories of children and the things that they experienced, and we have a lot of interviews to do. … I think it’s important to be patient, because that’s what it’s going to take.”
Local and state law enforcement removed the children Tuesday morning, without any advance notice to the Ranch for Kids.
DPHHS Deputy Director Laura Smith said officials had information that weapons were at the ranch, and decided it would be safer to remove the children without notice on Tuesday.
Some of the children have been returned to their parents’ custody and some remain in Montana, under the custody of the state, Smith said.
The state has been working with a child psychiatrist and others to ensure that the children are “being treated with respect and are being treated in a trauma-informed way,” she said.