By Myers Reece, 9-17-12
||Caption: The Ranch for Kids Project entrance is seen on Indian Creek Road near Eureka. - File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
Faced with a court order threatening to shut down its power and a possible preliminary injunction, a Eureka ranch for troubled foreign adoptees is making efforts to comply with state building and electrical requirements.
The state Department of Labor and Industry, which has the authority to shut down the facility’s power, is reviewing its options as the Ranch for Kids Project implements a series of state requirements.
The Ranch for Kids Project, which takes in foreign adoptees who are often suffering from fetal alcohol-related problems, is embroiled in two separate lawsuits with the labor department: one over licensing and the other over building and electrical code issues. The lawsuits were previously consolidated but in July a judge split them into separate cases.
In the building and electrical case, Lincoln County District Court Judge James Wheelis issued a July 20 court order requiring the Ranch for Kids to comply with state code or face repercussions, including the possibility of its power being shut down.
Wheelis set an “expedited deadline” of 20 days for compliance, noting that the ranch “has been given ample notice to cure” the building and electrical code issues and the court “finds that it is in the interest of public health, safety, and welfare to move this matter toward a conclusion.”
Colleen White, an attorney with the state Department of Labor and Industry, said that although the 20-day period has long passed the state is taking into account the ranch’s efforts to comply with an assortment of building and electrical code requirements.
White acknowledged that the court order gave the state the authority to depower the facility – “and we still have that authority” – but said the state is determining the best course of action “to do what’s best for the occupants and kids in the buildings.”
“We’re looking at our options as the information comes in and we’re keeping communication open,” White said. “And we’re making sure they’re following up in a reasonable time frame.”
The Ranch for Kids has been operating without a state license since 2010 when its provisional license expired and has been found to be out of compliance with a number of state building codes, including some with safety implications, according to the labor department.
Ranch manager William Sutley has argued that the Ranch for Kids is a private facility and not subject to commercial or public building requirements. Sutley and ranch founder Joyce Sterkel, however, have both said that they will comply with the judge’s order and have been making efforts to do so.
Mary Tapper, an attorney for the labor department’s Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoors Programs (PAARP) board, says Ranch for Kids is the only facility under her board’s jurisdiction to not have a license.
But ranch operators are arguing in court that since they are now affiliated with a Christian ministry they aren’t governed by state licensing requirements and not under the jurisdiction of PAARP. Judge Wheelis set a Nov. 13 trial date for the licensing case.
The ranch gained international attention this summer when a team of Russian government officials led by the country’s children’s rights commissioner showed up at the ranch in late June demanding to see the children. The Russians were turned away.
The commissioner, Pavel Astakhov, has called the ranch a “trash can for unwanted children” and alleged mistreatment of the kids. Upon returning home, Astakhov called for the facility to be closed.
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