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The state removed 27 children from a private adolescent treatment program in northwestern Montana on Tuesday, citing escalating reports of physical and psychological abuse.
The action at the Ranch for Kids near Rexburg, in Lincoln County, came less than a month after a law took effect giving the Department of Public Health and Human Services licensing authority over such programs.
Complaints about the Ranch for Kids had been made to an oversight board for years, the Missoulian reported, but the board was made up of people who ran similar facilities.
Health officials say the children — ranging in age from about 11 to 17 — are safe and are receiving needed medical attention. Officials were working to reunite them with their parents or find other placements for them.
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No one answered a phone call to the ranch Tuesday afternoon seeking comment.
District Judge Matthew J. Cuffe ordered the children removed as part of a child welfare case, said Jon Ebelt, health department spokesman. The order was sealed by the court.
The state also suspended the treatment program’s license.
“The health, safety and welfare of all children who live in Montana is paramount, and no child should have to experience what multiple sources have alleged has happened at the Ranch for Kids,” health department director Sheila Hogan said in a statement.
The ranch’s website says it provides treatment for children with issues caused by maternal use of alcohol or drugs while pregnant or an inability to bond with adoptive parents. The website says ranch staff use Christian principles and the values of caring, simplicity, consistency and accountability to “help kids build new habits and healthier behaviors so they can live successfully in a family and society.”
Health officials said allegations of “egregious abuse” had escalated in both frequency and severity in recent months.
The reports included:
—Children being hit, kicked, body-slammed and spit on by staff.
—Persistent psychological abuse.
—Staff using excessive discipline such as 15- to 20-mile (24- to 32-kilometer) walks on remote U.S. Forest Service roads in harsh conditions, withholding food, shooting a nail gun at a student and prolonged isolation.
—Children not receiving medical attention when critically needed and medications not being properly stored or administered.
—Runaways are not reported in a consistent or timely manner to local law enforcement, even in harsh winter conditions.
The ranch, which specializes in treating children who were adopted in foreign countries, has had previous troubles with state regulators.
In 2012, ranch owner Joyce Sterkel said the ranch was part of a church and wasn’t subject to regulations and inspections by the state. The state Board of Private Alternative Adolescent and Residential Outdoor Programs had ordered the ranch to get a license or be shut down.
A judge ruled against Sterkel’s claims of religious affiliation in 2013.
In 2011, a Russian government delegation including the nation’s children’s rights ombudsman and human rights envoy tried to gain entry to the ranch with a Moscow television camera crew. They questioned whether the children were receiving proper treatment and called the ranch “a trash can for unwanted children.”
Sterkel refused them entry without a representative from the State Department, and she accused the delegation of orchestrating a political stunt for their own gain back in Russia.
The Missoulian wrote a series of stories on private alternative treatment programs for adolescents in Montana that led to legislation to change oversight of the programs.