Like Russian critics, Montana regulators want to shut down Ranch for Kids

Latitude News Exclusive: Home on the range for adoptees lacks license to care for children

By Nicholas Nehamas

Did a high-profile Russian official have a point when he cried foul about a Montana ranch for troubled foreign orphans? A Latitude News investigation suggests he might have been right to raise alarms.

As was first reported in the U.S. by Latitude News, Russia’s ombudsman for children’s rights, Pavel Astakhov, caused a stir in Eureka, Montana when he showed up at the Ranch for Kids with a television crew June 28th, demanding to see Russian children living there. Barred entry, the Moscow lawyer blasted the ranch as abusive, calling it “a penal colony” and “a trash can for unwanted children” that was unsafe because of fire code violations and other failings.

The ranch’s owner, Joyce Sterkel, described Astakhov as “a publicity hound out to denigrate Americans.”

No one is yet saying that all of Astakhov’s concerns are well-founded. But Latitude News can exclusively reveal that the State of Montana has denied the Ranch for Kids a license to operate, citing safety violations that echo some of the Russian’s criticisms about safety.

Montana’s Department of Labor and Industry sent Sterkel a “cease and desist” letter on June 28th, 2011 that ordered her to stop treating children and close her facility. Sterkel and the state are now battling in court over the dispute.

State officials do not allege abuse at the ranch. But their cease and desist order followed more than two years of legal wrangling between Sterkel and Montana’s Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Programs (PAARP).

The controversy puts the quiet ranch in northwestern Montana front and center in tensions between the U.S. and Russia over adoption. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. citizens have adopted tens of thousands of Russian orphans. But a series of scandals in the U.S. has led Moscow to wonder if adoptive American parents are abusing Russian children.

The Ranch for Kids outside of Eureka, Montana. (Ranch for Kids)

Battle in the courts

It’s a surprising twist for the Ranch for Kids, which has received favorable media coverage in America for its non-medical treatment of troubled and sometimes violent kids. The ranch takes in foreign children whose behavioral problems overwhelm their adoptive American parents. Ten of the 25 children living there now are Russian.

PAARP denied the ranch a license in June 2010 after it discovered violations of building, fire and other codes, according to public records obtained by Latitude News. (Montana established licensing requirements for facilities like the ranch in 2005. Sterkel has run the project since 1999.)

Sterkel and her husband, William Sutley, who co-owns the ranch, refused to give state regulators basic information about the children under their care, the board said. State officials also alleged that the ranch didn’t conduct background checks on employees, threatened building inspectors and allowed drivers without commercial drivers’ licenses to transport children.

Sterkel appealed the ruling, but didn’t show up at the hearing ten months later. Instead, the ranch filed for status as a religious “adjunct ministry,” exempting it from inspection, and later sued the state in administrative court for denying it a license. The ranch is affiliated with Epicenter International, a non-denominational ministry. Sterkel says the children regularly attend Epicenter’s Chapel of Praise in Eureka.

Sterkel claims the children don’t use the buildings in violation of safety codes and that PAARP officials asked for confidential information on children — charges regulators dispute in court filings. Sterkel describes the licensing process as “onerous, intrusive and expensive,” adding: “What do you get for it? Nothing! No services. Just a piece of paper.”

The ranch “follows the same standards as if we were licensed,” says Sterkel. “We do all the things that would normally be required.”

A trailer for a documentary produced by the Ranch for Kids.

Montana officials wouldn’t comment on any ongoing investigations, but an attorney with Montana’s Department of Labor, Mary Tapper, said the ranch was the only one of sixteen group homes in the state that did not comply with licensing requirements. She also said an administrative court in Lincoln County, Montana would consider whether the ranch qualifies as an “adjunct ministry” (that case has been merged with the ranch’s suit against the PAARP).

No hearing date has been set.

If the court rules against Sterkel, the Ranch for Kids might have to close its doors. It’s not clear what would happen to the children.

A sanctuary for troubled children

Americans have adopted over 45,000 Russian children since 1999. Most of the adoptions are successful, international adoption agencies tell Latitude News. But unbeknownst to their new parents some adopted kids suffer from serious developmental disabilities like fetal alcohol syndrome. Others have been abused in dank Russian orphanages.

These traumas can make minors violent and difficult for adoptive families to raise. Experts say the children are liable to hurt themselves and their parents, siblings and classmates.

Some despairing American parents have even sent their adopted children back to Russia. In one controversial case in 2010, Torry Hansen caused an international incident by putting her Russian son on a plane to Moscow with a one-way ticket.

Russia nearly suspended U.S. adoptions as a result of the Hansen case, and the province of Siberia did just that earlier this month. Russia and the U.S. are now working out an agreement to help mitigate the rare situations when an adoption goes awry.

Parents who want to keep their troubled adopted kids can turn to the Ranch for Kids. It offers children structure, discipline and religious and secular instruction, which Sterkel says gives the children a sense of hope, love and understanding they may never have experienced before.

Joyce Sterkel and a student at the Ranch for Kids. (Ranch for Kids)

Sterkel has been working with Russian children since 1992. Parents pay $3,500 a month for their kids to attend the ranch. Around 70% of them eventually return to their adoptive parents, she says. “We are loved and appreciated by the families that use our services,” Sterkel tells Latitude News.

A local controversy goes global

The Ranch for Kids has been favorably profiled by The New York Times, CNN, ABC and others. That’s why in America, at least, Astakhov’s visit was so shocking.

No one was more surprised by the Russian’s accusations than locals, including Mike Cuffe, a Republican who represents Eureka and the surrounding area in Montana’s House of Representatives.

“As far as I know, the ranch is an honest business providing a good service to the U.S. and to Russia, too,” Cuffe tells Latitude News. “They’re helping these kids fit into regular society, even though they’re not easy to work with. What other option is there? Either they become institutionalized or they get a one-way ticket back to Russia. That’s a terrible way to deal with them.”

Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s Ombudsman for Children’s Rights. (Reuters)

But the Russians have a right to be concerned about these adoptees, a U.S. State Department official, who asked not to be named, tells Latitude News. “The Department of State supports appropriate access for concerned foreign officials to children who have both U.S. and foreign citizenship, consistent with privacy rights and with consent of parents or legal guardians.” In other words, while the State Department does not take a stance on Astakhov’s media blitz, the agency essentially supports the rights of Russian officials to check up on Russian children adopted in the U.S.

Chuck Johnson, president of the National Adoption Council, says Astakhov’s concerns are probably overblown. Even so, he believes Montana officials should take them seriously.

“I get where Astakhov is coming from,” says Johnson, speaking with Latitude News. “Even though these kids weren’t being well cared for in Russia, there’s an expectation, and it’s a fair expectation, that they be treated better here.”