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Why Montana Is Closing A Camp For Kids With Behavioral Issues


The parents of some troubled children received an unexpected call this summer. The state of Montana was shutting down a private ranch. This is a ranch that they paid thousands of dollars to help their kids with severe behavioral issues. There were allegations of chronic abuse.

Aaron Bolton from Montana Public Radio has more.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: The Ranch for Kids in remote northwestern Montana says it specializes in helping adopted children from Russia with behavioral and emotional issues. Dasha Springer's parents sent her to this school in the town of Rexford from 2007 to 2009, hoping it would stop her lying and manipulation. She says instead of therapy, residents were subjected to harsh punishments like walking for 16 miles.

DASHA SPRINGER: There would be no water. There was no snacks, anything like that. And we would line up in a straight line, and we couldn't talk to anybody.

BOLTON: Springer says these forced marches sometimes took place at night, in bad weather and with no shoes.

SPRINGER: We had to be 10 feet apart from each person. And that's all we did was just walk for miles and miles and miles.

BOLTON: Springer says it took years for her parents to believe her stories. And now, she feels vindicated because this summer, authorities and health officials removed 27 children, ages 11 to 17, from the Ranch for Kids.

SPRINGER: I was relieved. I felt like a hundred pounds off my shoulder but at the same, wondering, like, why did it take so long?

BOLTON: The Montana Department of Health and Human Services had fielded allegations of abuse at Ranch for Kids before, but it could only take action against individuals. A new Montana law changes that. It gives health officials regulatory oversight over Ranch for Kids and 13 similar facilities.


JON EBELT: So we have information involving students being physically hit, kicked, body-slammed and spit on by staff.

BOLTON: Montana's HHS spokesperson, Jon Ebelt, says the latest allegations at Ranch for Kids arose earlier this summer.


EBELT: Staff inflicting persistent psychological abuse on children, withholding food, shooting a nail gun at a student and prolonged isolation.

BOLTON: Health officials have suspended Ranch for Kids' license to operate, a decision the facility is appealing. Executive Director Bill Sutley denies allegations of physical abuse and calls the kids liars.

BILL SUTLEY: Some of them - they can say whatever they want.

BOLTON: Inside the facility, Sutley points to a closet where he locks up children's shoes. He says he does that to prevent them from running away.

SUTLEY: We've had a few kids, even barefoot, run away.

BOLTON: Standing outside of the ranch's front doors, Sutley also defends the 16-mile hikes he calls therapy walks.

SUTLEY: Unless you've watched a kid and seen a kid progress through the stages of that and experienced that, you're probably not going to have the same perspective.

BOLTON: For more than a decade, Montana lawmakers have heard calls for better oversight of these types of facilities, but they didn't take action until the Missoulian newspaper reported earlier this year that the 12-year-old regulatory board in charge of them had never disciplined any facility.

State House Representative Diane Sands thinks the Ranch for Kids case is just the tip of the iceberg.

DIANE SANDS: So I think this issue is one that we're going to see arise in a variety of western states as we raise the profile around these particular situations in Montana.

BOLTON: Sands has already been raising that profile by working with lawmakers across state lines. She hopes more state regulations will uproot bad actors hiding out in the woods of Montana and elsewhere in the west.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Rexford, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "ASUNDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aaron Bolton joined the KBBI News Department in 2017 after spending his first year reporting at KSTK in Wrangell. He grew up in southern Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2015 with a degree in journalism. Befrore moving to Alaska, Aaron reported for Radio K in Minneapolis. He spent his free time going to local concerts and promoting shows and music festivals. Since making the move to Alaska, he spends time in the backcountry snowboarding whenever possible. He's also an avid hockey player.