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Suit alleges Tierra Blanca abused teenager

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In another legal battle involving the Tierra Blanca Ranch, the grandparents of a former ranch resident filed a lawsuit alleging their grandson, Ryan Morgan, now 18, was subjected to physical and emotional abuse, neglect and exploitation.

In an email statement to the Journal, the ranch operators denied all the allegations.

The grandparents, Cheryl and James Morgan, acting with power of attorney on behalf of their grandson, say the teen’s abuse included beatings resulting in injury, the use of restraints such as shackles and handcuffs, ranch-condoned beatings by other youth residents, extreme punitive exercise, forced sleeping in a tent in freezing temperatures, withholding or rationing of food as punishment, performing chores that amounted to exploitative child labor, and failure to provide “appropriate or adequate educational instruction or therapeutic services.”

The lawsuit, filed last week in state District Court in Santa Fe, names as defendants Tierra Blanca operators James Scott Chandler and his wife, Colette Chandler, the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, and the New Mexico Licensing and Certification Authority. It asks the court for compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees and other costs.

The Morgans are all residents of Eddy County. Ryan Morgan was a ranch resident for 12 months, leaving the program in December 2011 at age 16.

Tierra Blanca is a 30,000-acre working cattle operation in the New Mexico’s Black Range, and has an address in Hillsboro, located in Sierra County.

The ranch’s Youth Program is intended to “provide schooling, counseling and therapy for troubled youth,” according to the lawsuit.

The Morgans contend that CYFD failed in its responsibility of overseeing facilities that provide services or programs to children, including a “multi-service home,” and that the state Licensing and Certification Authority as well as CYFD knew that Tierra Blanca was unlicensed.

However, CYFD Cabinet Secretary Yolanda Deines, said Tuesday that Tierra Blanca is a “wilderness” program, which is beyond CYFD oversight, and that she hopes to continue working with state legislators on a bill to provide CYFD with oversight for such programs in the future.

The suit also maintains that CYFD and the licensing authority knew or should have known that Tierra Blanca did not employ “any qualified medical, psychiatric or psychological professionals, nor do they employ or contract with teachers qualified to provide special education or educational services they promise to provide and charge parents for providing.”

Cheryl and James Morgan said in the lawsuit that they were charged and paid an initial fee of $5,800 and $3,500 monthly thereafter, for a total of $47,800.

In a statement sent to the Journal on Tuesday, the Chandlers said: “We deny all the allegations that the Morgans have made against the Tierra Blanca Ranch Youth Program. Our education speaks for itself, we have the documentation to show that the grandson’s educational needs were being met. We were working with all the required parties, including the Deming Public School system, to provide the services he needed. Furthermore, we can produce documents showing steady improvements in his grades while he was enrolled at the TBR Youth Program.”

The lawsuit is the third one filed by families who allege their children had been subjected to various exploitative or abusive treatment at Tierra Blanca.

Last month, the ranch settled its own lawsuit against the CYFD in which it accused the agency of overstepping its authority and violating search and seizure rules. Under the settlement, the ranch will continue to operate, but will give CYFD access to residents and their files for 12 months, said ranch attorney Pete Domenici Jr.

Deines said she can’t comment on pending litigation but CYFD would “continue to work with Tierra Blanca Ranch on the basis of the settlement agreement” and to help ensure the safety of youth who are staying at the ranch.

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