Troubled kids, troubled system

Unmade beds in the boys' dorm room at Ranch For Kids in Rexford indicate the sudden sweep of 27 children from the facility on July 23. The state health department and law enforcement removed the boys and girls, roughly ages 11 to 17, following allegations of abuse and neglect dating back 10 years.

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

By Seaborn Larson • Originally published on July 28, 2019

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.

The Ranch for Kids in 2014 moved into a vacant school building in Rexford, a retirement community nestled along Lake Koocanusa near the Canadian border.

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."

Bill Sutley, executive director of the Ranch for Kids, grimaces in describing the removal operation carried out by state officials last week.


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.

Rexford Mayor Bill Marvel describes the associated troubles related to the Ranch for Kids in the Town Office. In winter of 2018, one resident burned down a Canadian family's summer home, he said. Rexford residents have been calling for tighter security at the Ranch in recent months.

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.

The state health department and law enforcement are simultaneously investigating abuse and neglect at the Ranch for Kids, including disciplinary "walks" of up to 22 miles according to state regulators.

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.

A sheet of paper located above a resident's bunk bed at Ranch for Kids illustrates the program's teachings.

"Expect your perception to change," Sutley said to those who believe the allegations leveled against his facility. "Expect to be educated."

Sutley can understand that a 15-mile walk in testing conditions might seem cruel to someone outside the program, but he said staff's relationship with the students is actually the ingredient that makes such discipline walks OK.

"These people (the Ranch staff) get it. Why? Because they've lived it," he said. "Unless you've lived it and lived with these kids, you're not going to get it."


Sutley actually grew up in a home with adopted children with the same conditions as the children at the Ranch. He is educated as an electrical engineer, not a psychologist or therapist, but nonetheless founded the therapeutic program with his mother.

Administrators from the teen programs have stressed the need for such "tough love" techniques in legislative hearings each session since 2005. Michelle "Mickey" Manning, who now runs Reflections Academy in Thompson Falls, begged lawmakers not to impose regulatory measures that restricted the programs' ability to treat children with programming developed outside the box of mainstream psychology.

A surveillance camera looks out over the boys' dorm room at the Ranch for Kids.

That particular hearing, in 2007, came three years after a 16-year-old girl had died by suicide at the program where Manning worked at the time, Spring Creek Lodge Academy. Karlye Newman's suicide came shortly after an untrained and unqualified staffer voted her off high-risk status, according to lawsuit against the program.

That year, the Legislature passed the bill establishing the self-regulating board under the state Labor Department.

By 2009, Spring Creek Lodge Academy shut down. Regulators uncovered, among other things, a small outbuilding termed the "hobbit hole," where students were held for long periods of time in isolation.

Reflections Academy, where Manning now works as program director, is currently being sued by three families who allege girls there were subject to sexual harassment and assault. The families also allege girls were sometimes sent to live with an unlicensed program staffer in Utah for a "transitional program" after their time at Reflections. 

The law that moved regulation of the programs to the health department was passed this year after a Missoulian series revealed that none of the 58 complaints filed against the programs over 12 years under the old system resulted in significant sanctions.

The agencies involved in last week's removal operation at the Ranch for Kids declined to comment on whether any other investigations have opened into other programs since the health department took regulatory authority this month. Starting this month, the department's Quality Assurance Division begins touring the 14 facilities coming under its watch.

Sheriff Short said he is aware of the programs in Lincoln County, as well as the concentration of such programs in northwestern Montana. Deputies were well aware of Ranch for Kids before the removal effort.

"I think all of the deputies at one point or another had dealt with runaway issues or some type of a complaint (there)," he said.


Nearly all of the 14 private teen treatment programs, including the Ranch for Kids, are clustered in remote corners of northwest Montana. Four are located in Lincoln County, with several more scattered in neighboring Sanders and Flathead counties.

If the health department continues to turn up problematic practices, Short said his office is prepared to assist any agency in another removal effort, and he's also offered a deputy to any inspector heading out to one of the programs in his jurisdiction — another shift signaling the sea change in this industry.

"We'll just kind of play it by ear as DPHHS steps in and takes more of an active role in licensing and oversight," he said.