A ranch for troubled children in northwest Montana has found itself at odds with the Russian government.
The Ranch for Kids is a home for youngsters adopted from Russia whose behavioral problems overwhelm their new parents in America. Many suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome and are prone to violent outbursts, reports said. The children do chores, attend church and learn to interact productively with one another and their elders. The facility has been profiled by CNN, the New York Times and others.
But Russia’s Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, a high-profile Moscow lawyer named Pavel Astakhov, recently published highly critical comments about the ranch on his website, reported RIA Novosti, a Russian state-owned news agency. “The very form of the children’s being there is shocking,” Astakhov wrote on the website. “What is it, a pre-trial detention facility? A penal colony? Or a trash can for unwanted children?”
Astakhov went on to argue that the children were “completely isolated from the outside world” and that it was not clear whether they “receive the necessary help and treatment.”
Kids get stuck in the middle
The adoption of Russian children by Americans has become a contentious issue in relations between the two countries.
Recent controversies include an adopted Russian boy who died in a house fire in Nebraska and the case of Torry Hansen, an American who sent her adopted child back to Russia after saying he was “psychotic.”
Joyce Sterkel, who runs the Ranch for Kids, issued a stern denial of Astakhov’s charges to Latitude News. Pointing to positive media coverage of the ranch, she said, “This is an open book, come on. We’re not hiding anything or hurting any children. There are no secrets here.”
In fact, Sterkel said, Astakhov never even set foot on the ranch. After refusing a series of written requests by the ombudsman to visit, she said Astakhov showed up yesterday outside her gate with a Russian television crew. She told him to get lost, describing him as “a publicity hound out to denigrate Americans.” (Sterkel said she let other Russian officials tour the premises in 2010 and 2011.)
After Astakhov left the ranch, he went to the offices of Bernie Cassidy, the Lincoln County Attorney.
At the attorney’s office, Sterkel claimed, Cassidy gave Astakhov “confidential information” about several of her young charges, including a nine-year-old girl who tried to run away from the ranch. The information appeared on Astakhov’s website and was credited to Cassidy, RIA Novosti said.
In an interview with Latitude News, Cassidy confirmed that he met with Astakhov but refused to let the encounter be filmed. “I suspected a publicity angle,” he said. Cassidy would not comment on whether he had given the Russian official information on any children, saying he “wasn’t sure what [Sterkel] was talking about.”
Cassidy added that there have been rumors that children are mistreated at the Ranch for Kids but none have been “substantiated” or resulted in formal charges.
Sterkel said she contacted the U.S. State Department and the office of Sen. John Tester (D-MT) about the incident. Of Cassidy she insisted: “He won’t have a job by the time I’m done. This is Montana. This is the United States of America, and I have rights. And I will protect my children and their parents.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry said it would ask American authorities to shut down the ranch.