Authorities have removed 27 children from a youth treatment facility in northwest Montana, citing "consistent and chronic allegations" of medical neglect and physical and psychological abuse.
The state Department of Public Health and Human Services said it had suspended the license of the Ranch for Kids in Rexford, in Lincoln County near Kootenai National Forest along the Canadian border, "to prevent future abuse."
"The 27 children that were removed are now at a safe location," the agency said in a statement on Tuesday. "They are receiving medical care. The details of their care and condition are confidential."
Sheila Hogan, the department's director, said the agency was working to get in touch with parents to try to reunify families or to find other suitable placements for the children.
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The Ranch for Kids didn't respond to an email or answer a telephone call seeking comment Wednesday.
The Lincoln County Sheriff's Office said the children were removed under a court order pending a full investigation of "allegations of egregious physical and psychological child abuse and neglect."
The Health Department said tips and reports of "egregious abuse" had been rising "in both frequency and severity in recent months," including allegations that:
- Children were hit, kicked, body slammed and spit on by staff members.
- Staff members inflicted "persistent psychological abuse" on children, including prolonged isolation.
- Children were forced to go on 15- to 20-mile "disciplinary walks" on remote Forest Service roads in harsh conditions.
- Food was withheld from children.
- A nail gun was shot at a child.
The Missoulian newspaper of Missoula quoted the ranch's executive director, Bill Sutley, on Wednesday as denying some of the allegations, including the allegation that a nail gun had been fired at a child.
The other allegations, he was quoted as saying, were blown out of proportion to discredit the facility. He said children were sometimes sent on long walks as a form of discipline but never in improper conditions, the newspaper reported.
The Ranch for Kids, a nonprofit organization founded in 2004, describes itself as a respite care program for at-risk adopted children and their families, particularly children suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome and reactive attachment disorder, which is a condition found in children who have been mistreated by previous primary caregivers.
"The Ranch for Kids program is based on Christian principles and the values of caring, simplicity, consistency and accountability," according to the facility's publicity materials.
The state action comes after years of licensing disputes between the state and the ranch, which says it is an adjunct ministry of Epicenter International Missions, and less than a month after a state law took effect that moved such children's programs under the jurisdiction of the Health Department.
No contact information for Epicenter International Missions was listed in publicly available state records. In 2013, during one of the earlier licensing disputes, the state Labor Department told The Associated Press that Epicenter had no building, no congregation and no ordained clergy.