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Montana camp for adopted children operating without license, denies fault

The Ranch for Kids, a Montana home for troubled adopted children recently criticized by Russian officials, has been operating without a state license for the past two years, but the ranch owner denies any wrongdoing.

By Matt VolzAssociated Press / July 19, 2012

The Ranch for Kids, a working ranch for troubled adopted children, recently came under fire from Russian human rights officials. The ranch has been operating without a state license for the past two years, though ranch owner Joyce Sterkel says it is part of a church mission and no longer under the state's authority.

Tom Bauer/The Missoulian/AP

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HELENA, Mont.

The Russian government isn't alone in raising questions about a Montana ranch that cares for troubled children adopted from foreign countries.

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Montana regulators are actively involved in a legal battle to shut down the Ranch For Kids near the Canadian border, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through a public information request.

Those records show the ranch in Eureka has been operating without a license since 2010. The state board that oversees private alternative adolescent residential and outdoor programs ordered it last year to stop operating until it obtains a proper license.

Ranch owner Joyce Sterkel is appealing that order in court, saying the ranch has become part of a church mission and is no longer under the board's authority.

"I'm sure we'll settle it at some point," Ms. Sterkel said Wednesday, adding that she had feared since the board was formed that it would nitpick and overregulate. "It has nothing to do with the safety of children," she said.

Last month, Russian children rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov and human rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov showed up at the Ranch For Kids' gates, demanding entry to check on the adopted children from Russia in Sterkel's care. They questioned whether the children were receiving necessary care or treatment at the remote ranch.

Ten of the 25 children there are from Russia, with others from China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Haiti, Ethiopia and other countries. Their ages vary, and their troubles range from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder to the aftereffects of spending their early lives in difficult conditions in orphanages.

The Russians were denied access that day. Sterkel previously denied any claims that the children are mistreated or lacking care. Parents with children at the ranch currently or in the past have risen to Sterkel's defense, saying her program provides a necessary service for adopted children struggling with medical and behavioral problems.

But neither Sterkel nor the Russians mentioned the Ranch For Kids' dispute with state regulators that now stretches back more than two years, after the Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Programs declined to renew the ranch's provisional license in June 2010.

An inspection that was part of the license application process found deficiencies that included a failure to show the ranch's buildings are up to code, the lack of a disaster plan, no background checks or commercial drivers' licenses for employees and no student handbook or statement on the rights of the program participants.

Beyond that, Sterkel denied the board any information about the children at the ranch. Board attorney Mary Tapper described the refusal in court documents in which she referred to the ranch as "RFK."

"RFK flatly refused to inform the Board how many children were enrolled at RFK including their ages and gender. Because many of the children enrolled at RFK are reported to have severe emotional and disciplinary challenges, the Board sought this information for the protection of the health, safety and welfare of the children," Ms. Tapper wrote.

The board gave the ranch operators a three-month probationary license to give them time to prove they had corrected the deficiencies, and then extended that license until Nov. 15, 2010, according to board documents and court filings.

Sterkel requested a full hearing on the deficiencies, but Tapper said Sterkel did not provide requested information, or else provided contradictory information, in the discovery process.

Through her attorney, Sterkel in March 2011 requested the hearing be canceled. The hearing examiner ruled in favor of the board, which issued the cease-and-desist order in June 2011.

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