Then, last summer, it was accused by a top Russian official of abusing Russian kids.
Now a district court judge in Montana has ruled that the Ranch for Kids must comply with state licensing requirements if it wants to continue operating.
“Get a license or face the consequences”
The ranch argued that its affiliation with a local ministry exempted it from state regulations. But Mary Tapper, the state’s attorney, said that Epicenter International Missions Ministry, run by a former employee of the ranch, did not qualify as a real religious institution. She added that the ranch had only begun claiming a religious exemption status several months after she first delivered it a cease-and-desist letter on June 28th, 2011.
“And even so,” Tapper tells Latitude News, “just because a program is associated with a church doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems there.”
Lincoln County Judge James Wheelis agreed, saying in comments carried by the Flathead Beacon that the state has a right “to take steps to protect children regardless of where they’re situated – a school, family [or other places].”
Joyce Sterkel, the ranch’s owner, countered that the government’s treatment of her facility was “draconian.” She says that complying with regulations for programs like hers has become far more onerous and expensive than legislators intended. In fact, Sterkel actually helped design the regulations. She says the problem is with how they have been implemented since becoming law in 2005.
She’s not sure what comes next for the ranch, which she says currently cares for around 25 children, fewer than ten of whom are from Russia.
“Right now I just don’t know,” Sterkel explains. “We can either refuse to cooperate, comply with the ruling or appeal to a state court. We have 30 days to decide.”
Tapper says she will deliver a letter to the court next week outlining a timeline for the ranch to acquire a license or face the consequences.
Notoriety in Russia
The court case is just the latest incident in a long-running controversy surrounding the Ranch for Kids and international adoption from Russia. The ranch opened in 1999 and won acclaim for its treatment of adopted kids — many of them foreign — whose behavioral problems overwhelmed their new parents. But in Russia, which recently banned Americans from adopting, the Ranch for Kids became a symbol of the abuse Russian officials said “their” children were suffering at the hands of American parents.
The issue boiled over when Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s Children’s Right Commissioner and Sterkel’s most prominent critic, actually showed up in Eureka, Montana with cameramen from a Russian TV channel, demanding to visit the Russian-born children being treated at the ranch. Sterkel refused to let him in, calling his actions a “publicity stunt.” Astakhov called the ranch abusive, saying it was a “trash can for unwanted children.”
Latitude News covered that story when it happened and was the first news organization to discover that state inspectors had found building and fire code violations at the ranch. (The court will hold a separate hearing on March 4th to decide whether Sterkel has complied with the state’s request to upgrade her facilities.)
Sterkel had also refused to give regulators information about the children at the ranch, citing privacy concerns. Many of the kids suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, which can cause learning disabilities, or reactive attachment disorder, which in some cases can make children violent. But we did not uncover any allegations of abuse apart from Astakhov’s claims.
Russia, for its part, still hasn’t given up on inspecting the Ranch for Kids. This week the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement insisting that its officials be allowed onto Sterkel’s property. Sterkel said she would not comply, pointing to visits by officials from the Russian consulate in Seattle in 2010.
In a statement to Latitude News, State Department spokesperson Peter Velasco says the U.S. will continue to “facilitate communication” between Russia and the Ranch for Kids, but adds that the ranch is “a private institution and it is ultimately the ranch director’s decision and that of the U.S. parents whether to allow access to the facility for foreign officials.”
There’s certainly a strong whiff of nationalism to Russia’s claims of abuse, though it’s true that 19 of the 45,000 Russian children adopted by Americans since 1999 have died while in the care of their adoptive families. Critics say Russia’s adoption ban — which took effect on January 1, 2013 — is retribution for an American bill, the Magnitsky Act, that criticized Russia for human rights violations.
Sterkel claims the ranch is being used as a “pawn” in the wider conflict between Russia and the U.S. She even tells Latitude News that the Russian government had put pressure on Mary Tapper to bring the case against the ranch. But Tapper strongly denied that charge, saying she has had “no contact” with Russian officials under any circumstances.
As Sterkel considers the next step for the Ranch for Kids, she bemoans the geopolitical wrangling that led to the adoption ban.
“It’s punitive to children and it’s not right,” she says. “I don’t have any control over what a foreign government does, but we’re all very sorry. Why are they punishing 650,000 children that need to have a home? Is it better for them to be housed in some warehouse in Russia?”