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Trouble on the Tierra Blanca

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

San Diego lawyer Steve Cowen was never comfortable with his ex-wife’s decision to send their son Josh to Tierra Blanca.

After Josh graduated from the program – he now attends Western New Mexico University in Silver City and is held up as a poster boy for the ranch program’s success – Steve Cowen criticized the program on the Internet.

In response, several teens who had been at the ranch contacted him.

Attorney Pete Domenici Jr. makes a statement defending the ranch at a news conference, with Scott Chandler, family members, supporters and some boys from the ranch in the background. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Attorney Pete Domenici Jr. makes a statement defending the ranch at a news conference, with Scott Chandler, family members, supporters and some boys from the ranch in the background. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

What they told Cowen disturbed him, and he interviewed the boys and others in detail. He cross-checked times and locations and other facts from the telephone interviews.

He said the interviews corroborated one another.

Cowen prepared a detailed report of alleged incidents that mostly occurred between October 2011 and September 2012 and sent it to the Sierra County Sheriff’s Office, the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department and others.

Among the allegations:

  • A boy beaten in the face by an adult employee of the ranch with a Kubaton (a small self-defense weapon). Several boys told Cowen that the boy’s head swelled up like “a Martian.”
  • Boys being ordered or encouraged to beat other residents who were not cooperating.
  • The program used a remote “satellite” ranch in the Sacramento Mountains in Otero County as a punishment camp where boys lived on short rations (rice and beans), worked most of the day building fence lines and were forced to run when not working.
  • While being held at the satellite ranch for months, the boys there had little or no contact with teachers, no medical care, and considered themselves “slave labor” for ranch owner Scott Chandler.

“The residents I interviewed corroborated each other,” Cowen said in a telephone interview with the Journal. “As an attorney, that’s the type of thing you look for when you’re working on a lawsuit.”

Cowen sent the report to New Mexico authorities last December, setting in slow motion a chain of events that led to the dramatic attempt by the state to take nine boys into state custody and the ranch into hiding them until they could be returned to their parents – where it would be more difficult for authorities to question them.

After receiving Cowen’s report, Sierra County Sheriff’s deputies interviewed some of the same boys and were told similar stories.

Sierra County Sheriff Joe Baca said the case was turned over to State Police earlier this year.

“We’re a young department,” Baca said. “Our deputies have been in law enforcement an average of three years.”

While the State Police reports released to the media are less detailed than those produced by Cowen or Sierra County deputies, they do show the boys Cowen interviewed repeated the same abuse allegations.

In public filings, CYFD claimed to have “significant evidence” that teens at the ranch had suffered systematic emotional and psychological abuse; were not receiving adequate medical care; and were shackled, handcuffed and hooded for months at a time.

Some ranch residents claimed that food was withheld as punishment.

Chandler denied allegations of child abuse during a press conference on Oct. 10.

He said parents had placed their children at the ranch voluntarily and accused the state of trying to take away “their god-given fundamental right to parent their children.”

Old-fashioned experience

The Tierra Blanca Ranch High Country Youth Program promised parents willing to pony up between $80 and $150 a day that their troubled teens would start the day with Bible study, then breakfast, schoolwork and outdoor activities later in the day.

It advertised an old-fashioned ranch experience that would teach teens “respect for themselves, their families and others, and learn about responsibility, self-discipline and the existence of consequences.”

Some of these values would be taught through “behavior modification” techniques, which were not described in the materials.

Most of the teens sent to the ranch by their parents spend two years there.

They are home schooled with a teacher visiting twice a week but get their diplomas from the Deming School District.

The Tierra Blanca Ranch youth program has been taking in children ages 11 to 16 for a number of years until the latest investigation.

Exactly how long the program has been operating is open to question.

A ranch brochure says 20 years. Scott Chandler said “15 years” at one point in his press conference and “17 years” later in his press conference.

The program doesn’t appear to have been incorporated until June 2009, when the state corporation filings for the Berean New Baptist Church in Deming were amended and renamed Tierra Blanca Ranch Youth Program.

The ranch is not licensed by the state and, while advertising says the ranch was able to handle children with a wide range of psychiatric disorders, there are no licensed medical personnel on the staff.

The headquarters is near Hillsboro but the ranch spreads out across 30,000 acres into the rugged Black Range Mountains.

A frantic attempt

State Police and social workers from Children, Youth and Families raided the ranch the day after the news conference, only to find the boys gone. (Courtesy KOAT)

State Police and social workers from Children, Youth and Families raided the ranch the day after the news conference, only to find the boys gone. (Courtesy KOAT)

The day before State Police and state social workers raided his Tierra Blanca Ranch youth program, Scott Chandler put his hands on the shoulders of two of the program’s graduates and introduced them to reporters.

One of the young men, Jon Cowen, talked about how Chandler had been like a father to him and denied allegations of child abuse at the Tierra Blanca Ranch High Country Youth Program.

Jon Cowen declined to answer any questions from the media at the press conference but volunteered that his mother was very proud of the man he had become.

During his brief comments at the press conference, Jon Cowen didn’t mention his own father, who had been working hard to compile a case against Tierra Blanca and Chandler.

The press conference was followed by the frantic attempt to take boys currently at the ranch into custody in a confrontation, ranch attempts to thwart that effort and pointed barbs from Gov. Susana Martinez, who said she would never apologize for investigating alleged child abuse.

Chandler and his attorneys, meanwhile, have sought to discredit the state investigation and the former residents who allege abuse at the ranch. They also filed a lawsuit on Oct. 8 seeking to block CYFD from taking any action against the ranch. Their petition for an emergency order wasn’t granted.

On Oct. 10, while Chandler, his supporters and attorney Pete Domenici Jr. held the press conference on Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza, attorneys for CYFD were in closed courtrooms obtaining court orders giving the department legal custody of nine boys living at Tierra Blanca.

But when the State Police and CYFD workers showed up at the ranch to take custody of the boys and serve sealed search warrants to look for evidence of child abuse, the boys were not at the ranch and State Police couldn’t find them.

Later in the day, Domenici announced that Chandler was in the process of returning the boys to the custody of their parents.

Domenici insisted the state was unfairly escalating its campaign to shut the ranch down.

The state issued an Amber Alert for the boys, canceling it only after State Police said all nine boys were physically safe and in the custody of their parents.

Licensing issue

There have been disturbing reports emanating from Tierra Blanca over the years.

In 2006, a teen escaped from the ranch wearing shackles and called 911 on a telephone he had taken from the ranch.

State Police returned the boy to the ranch but, because the program wasn’t licensed by CYFD, department officials concluded they couldn’t enter the ranch. For at least the last decade, CYFD has interpreted the state Children’s Code as giving the agency primary jurisdiction in child abuse cases involving family members while law enforcement has primary jurisdiction when the alleged abuse involves non-family members.

State Police then served a search warrant to retrieve the boy from the ranch and returned him to his mother.

The incident led CYFD to step up efforts to get the program licensed, but Chandler resisted.

CYFD offered to allow the ranch to get licensed as the lowest and least regulated type of group home but Chandler and his attorney at the time failed to show up for a meeting.

When CYFD staff went to the ranch later that year to investigate allegations of abuse made by one youth, all the children and staff were away on a “previously scheduled outing” and Chandler couldn’t produce any records.

And CYFD wasn’t certain it could force licensing.

Camps, like the Boy Scouts summer camp at Philmont Scout Camp, and other summer camps are excluded under the Children’s Code from licensing, in part because children are there with parental approval.

A child advocacy group appointed to represent the nine boys the state was attempting to take into custody disputes CYFD’s legal interpretation that it is restricted in how it investigates the ranch and argued that CYFD had the authority to license the facility.

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