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.

Tom Bauer/The Missoulian/AP
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.

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

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.

Since then, the matter has been in state court. Sterkel says the ranch took care of four of the five problems the board had listed, and that the hearing was only supposed to be about building codes. But then she found out through the board's information requests that the other concerns also would be examined at the hearing, and she claimed that is a violation of due process.

Tapper denies that, saying the matter before the board was the Ranch For Kids' license and all issues pertaining to it, not just building codes.

Sterkel also said the cease and desist order was not properly served to her, which the board also denies.

But Sterkel's main defense is that her ranch is no longer under the board's authority because in October 2011, she signed an agreement with a missionary group affiliated with a small church in Eureka. That agreement makes the Ranch for Kids an adjunct missionary of the Epicenter International Missions Ministry, an organization that works with lepers and orphans in India.

State law says that a program that is an adjunct missionary is exempt from board licensing requirements, ranch attorney J. Tiffin Hall wrote in a legal filing.

The judge in the case has not yet made any rulings.

The dispute between the ranch, state regulators and the Russians is happening as a bilateral adoption agreement between the U.S. and Russia is going through the ratification process.

Yevgeny Uspensky, an official with the Russian consulate in Seattle, said Tuesday that his government has requested assistance from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer in arranging a visit to the ranch. Uspesnky said the government considers the children Russian citizens, even though they have been adopted by US parents and have American citizenship, and they have the right to check on their situation.

"I believe they have nothing to conceal. We wanted to meet the kids, just talk. I was not able to understand why access was denied," Mr. Uspensky said.

Sterkel and parents with children at the ranch question the Russians' motives, calling it a political stunt timed with the ratification of the adoption agreement, and the parents say the attention could have the effect of damaging the reputation of a program that is necessary for children who are having troubles adapting to everyday life.

Sharon Houlihan, whose 10-year-old son Shawn is a student at the ranch, said she takes offense at the Russians' implications that these children are being cast off by parents who don't love them. Nothing could be further from the truth, Ms. Houlihan said.

"I am offended that the Russians who couldn't take care of my children and had them in orphanage would think now that they have the right to come in here and look at what I'm doing and determine whether it's appropriate or not," she said. "These kids come with a lot of things wrong. As a parent you accept the commitment and you do whatever you need to do."

Gigi Davidson, who enrolled her 23-year-old adopted son in the camp at age 18, said she does not put any stock in the state's allegations against the ranch.

"Someone's out to get them and I really don't know why," Ms. Davidson said. "This is the only place I know that can help these kids."

Ranch officials have previously refused entry to state inspectors, according to documents from a 2009 lawsuit by the state agency's Building Codes Bureau that has been combined with the licensing lawsuit.

That lawsuit includes an affidavit by state building inspector Rick Cockrell that says Cockrell, a deputy fire marshal, and electrical and plumbing inspectors tried to look at the ranch property in April 2009. Cockrell also asked a law enforcement official along because of what he believed was "threatening behavior" by ranch manager William Sutley.

Mr. Sutley met them and denied them access to conduct their inspections, the first time Cockrell said that has ever happened to him. The ranch manager said that only two of 16 buildings on the property were being used by the program participants and the rest were being used as private residences, Cockrell said in the affidavit.

Sterkel repeated on Wednesday that only a couple of the buildings were being used by the children.

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