Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
A southern New Mexico ranch program for troubled teens is fighting back against a state investigation into allegations that ranch residents were shackled and beaten by staff members.
The Tierra Blanca Ranch High Country Youth Program and owner Scott Chandler filed a lawsuit this week against the state Children, Youth and Families Department asking District Judge Edmund H. Kase III to bring the state investigation to a halt.
The lawsuit, filed in Truth or Consequences, claims CYFD violated its own procedures for conducting an investigation, showed bias when questioning children and threatened their parents with prosecution if they didn’t remove their children from the program.
Chandler said, “It wasn’t an investigation. They came in and threatened to shut the program down. Parents are being threatened. Children told they have to leave by Thursday. That doesn’t sound impartial.”
CYFD spokesman Henry Varela said, “We will continue to do everything we can to make sure that any children who are currently at Tierra Blanca Ranch are safe and not in any danger.”
He said the department cannot disclose any specific information regarding a child abuse investigation.
According to the lawsuit, State Police and CYFD investigators interviewed students at the ranch last week, over Chandler’s objections that he was not allowed to be present during the interviews.
The state investigation centers on allegations that ranch residents were beaten by staff members or other students at the behest of staff members, forced to wear shackles and handcuffs and fed starvation rations.
Some of the State Police reports date back to 2006, but the most recent State Police investigation began after a single-vehicle traffic accident at the 30,000 acre ranch in late September that killed a former student.
Law enforcement officers investigating the accident also questioned students at the ranch about allegations of abuse.
Chandler called the allegations “baseless” during a Thursday morning press conference.
“We do not do anything that is illegal,” he said. “We authorize the use of restraints in the most dire situations.”
Parents sign over a power of attorney to Chandler when their children enter the program, which includes a biblical component. The parents agree to allow behavior modification, including physical punishment.
“The government wants to come in and take away their God-given fundamental right to parent their children,” Chandler said.
He denied using the students as free labor as ranch hands.
The lawsuit brought by the ranch alleges CYFD representatives contacted parents and urged them to remove their children from the program – and that at least one parent was personally contacted by Gov. Susana Martinez.
Martinez denied intervening in the investigation, according to a statement issued by her office.
Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said, “The Governor hasn’t had contact with any of the families. Any contact would have been handled by CYFD or law enforcement.”
Ranch owner Chandler said at a press conference Thursday that Martinez had taken a personal interest in the investigation and invited her to help resolve the program’s differences with CYFD.
Knell said Martinez’ staff has received updates from CYFD and DPS about the agencies’ efforts “to protect the children at this ranch and investigate alleged wrongdoing that has occurred there.”
Martinez was briefed by her staff, Knell said.
Knell said, “Investigations are underway, and the administration is properly working to ensure that children in New Mexico are safe and free from harm.”
Ranch attorney Pete Domenici Jr. said it was unclear whether CYFD had filed sealed court actions seeking removal of the students from the ranch in Children’s Court for the 7th Judicial District, which includes the counties of Socorro, Catron, Torrance and Sierra, where the ranch is headquartered.
“Our action seeks to stop CYFD from making inappropriate threats against the ranch, parents and children,” Domenici said.
He said the ranch has tried to communicate with CYFD and that despite repeated requests, CYFD did not respond.
“There is no immediate threat to any of the students at the ranch,” Domenici said.
Pegasus Legal Services for Children based in Albuquerque has been pushing for an investigation of abuse complaints at the ranch.
In a statement released in response to the lawsuit, Pegasus said, the ranch’s lawsuit “is a baseless and inappropriate attempt to undermine New Mexico’s child welfare system.”
“It is critical that CYFD not be obstructed in taking all steps necessary to carry out their mandatory duties under New Mexico law to investigate abuse and neglect and to ensure the safety and well-being of children currently” at the ranch, the statement said.
Two graduates speak up
Two graduates of the ranch program were at the news conference in support of Chandler’s lawsuit.
Kevin Finch, now a freshman at Western New Mexico University, said, “I’ve never been beat and never seen anyone beaten. The accusations are downright lies.”
Jon Cowen, another graduate of the program, said, “This has been insanity. Scott Chandler turned my life around 180 degrees.”
Cowen’s father is a critic of the program. His mother is a strong supporter.