While residential boarding schools in Montana have been around for a while, these programs have recently been brought to the forefront following revelations related to allegations of serious physical and psychological mistreatment of children, sexual abuse of children, and unqualified personnel and counselors.
In 2018, three lawsuits against Reflections Academy in Thompson Falls were filed following allegations of sexual abuse and grooming by a male employee, Chaffin Pullan, and professional negligence related, in part, to inadequate therapy and education. Reflections Academy, a for-profit corporation, is owned by Michele “Mickey” Manning, who also served on the board for Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Program (PAARP). Until Senate Bill 267 was passed and subsequently became law on July 1, 2019, Montana’s residential boarding schools, including Reflections Academy, were overseen by PAARP. Ironically, PAARP’s board was made up of representatives from the boarding school industry it was intended to oversee and regulate.
On its website, Reflections Academy advertises itself as “a small, homelike therapeutic boarding school for girls, nestled in the natural beauty of Northwest Montana. A welcoming haven for struggling teenage girls and their families. Our unique residential program strives to be a safe haven for struggling teenage girls and their families.” Reflections Academy’s website never mentioned employing Cameron Pullan and Chaffin Pullan, twin brothers, well known to Mickey Manning, both personally and professionally. In fact, Cameron Pullan and Chaffin Pullan were defendants in a prior lawsuit that alleged negligence for the death of a student that occurred at Spring Creek Lodge in Northwest Montana. Despite being very familiar with the prior litigation and testifying in that litigation, Mickey Manning employed the Pullan brothers at Reflections. Chaffin Pullan later admitted to having a sexual relationship with a child enrolled at Reflections Academy and allegations of sexual abuse and grooming of other children were made.
The Missoulian published a news series about residential treatment programs in Montana following a yearlong review, exposing the dark underbelly of these for-profit youth therapeutic treatment programs. https://missoulian.com/troubled-kids-troubled-system/collection_d59fcf11-f157-5dd1-8622-0e92810e4ee7.html
On July 1, 2019, the Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 267, which, in summary, terminated PAARP’s licensing duties and transferred those duties to the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). Effective July 1, 2019, DPHHS provides for the licensure and regulation of private alternative adolescent residential or outdoor programs to monitor and maintain a high standard of care and to ensure the health and safety of adolescents and parents using the programs. DPHHS is also statutorily required now to conduct periodic visits to facilities to ensure that minimum standards are maintained. For those programs with licenses in existence prior to July 1, 2019, those licenses will be accepted and administered by DPHHS until the licenses expire or are canceled, reduced, modified, or revoked by DPHHS. With DPHHS overseeing the youth treatment industry, change is underway in Montana.
On July 23, 2019, twenty-seven children were evacuated from Ranch for Kids in Rexford, Montana following allegations of “egregious, chronic and persistent child abuse and neglect.” Reportedly, children were hit, kicked, body-slammed, and spit on. Allegations include a staff member shooting a nail gun at students, prolonged isolation, withholding food, and students being forced to go on 15-20 mile walks in the middle of the night in inappropriate clothing. It has been alleged that staff inflicted persistent psychological abuse on children and used excessive discipline. Allegations also include children not receiving critically necessary medical attention and inadequate administration of medications. It has been reported that staff themselves have indicated that they were unequipped to handle the children accepted to Ranch for Kids.
The Ranch for Kids advertises itself as a therapy program serving adopted children with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). The program has been the subject of several allegations over the 20 years it has been operating. Ranch for Kids was originally founded by Joyce Sterkel and is now overseen by Executive Director, Bill Sutley, who is Sterkel’s son. Sutley oversees all operations, teaches students, and provides therapy for the children. Before his work with Ranch for Kids, Sutley was an electrical engineer and does not have an educational degree nor is he a licensed therapist. Despite this, Sutley holds himself out to be a “teacher” and a “recognized authority on therapeutic process.”
The DPHHS’ July 23, 2019 revocation of Ranch for Kids’ license is not the first time its licensure has been revoked. In 2010 the PAARP board did not renew the ranch’s provisional license and despite this, Ranch for Kids continued to operate without a license until PAARP issued a cease-and-desist order in June 2011. In another lawsuit, after threatening behavior from Sutley and Sutley’s refusal to allow an inspection of the premises, the Department of Labor and Industry filed a lawsuit against Ranch for Kids related to long-standing building code issues.
While parents often do extensive research prior to enrolling their children in boarding schools, their research may not shed light on the various allegations, complaints, and inadequate staff/owner credentials, which are not always available to the public. Websites for many therapeutic boarding school programs promise compassionate and quality treatment, experienced staff and therapists, hope, healing, safety for children, and a homelike atmosphere – all in the beautiful Northwest Montana. For struggling teens and families, these representations seem like a lifeline to healing and promise. These representations entice parents and guardians to pay upwards of $4,500 a month or more in tuition – in addition to application fees and additional expenses for food, uniforms, therapy, and extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, despite these enormous rates for tuition and fees, many teens and parents have not benefited from these programs, and in some cases individuals have suffered significant damages as a result of enrolling in and relying on the program.
At Paoli Law Firm we are committed to fully protecting our clients’ rights and interests. If you or someone you know has suffered damages arising from enrollment in a residential treatment facility, call Paoli Law Firm, P.C. at 406-542-3330 to set up an initial consultation.