State investigators are looking into allegations that teenage boys living at an unlicensed southern New Mexico ranch for troubled youth were beaten by a former staff member and forced to wear leg shackles and handcuffs for minor infractions of ranch rules.
The $80-a-day program at the 30,000-acre Tierra Blanca Ranch in Sierra County near Hillsboro caters to parents who can no longer deal with their children’s drug use or other behaviors. It promises a careful balance between love, discipline and structure. It also promises education based on sound biblical principles.
State Police Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez and general counsel Jennifer Saavedra of the Children, Youth and Families Department have confirmed the investigation.
According to State Police reports, residents of the program say they saw one teen beaten by an employee while the boy was shackled after he had been forced to run all day.
Witnesses said the employee, now living in Texas, beat the boy in the face with what the teens described as a Kubaton, which is akin to a nightstick.
In other cases, employees allegedly had groups of teenage residents beat another resident for being uncooperative, according to police reports.
Officers called to the ranch on at least one occasion found one of the boys in shackles. He had escaped and called State Police on a telephone he had taken from the ranch.
Officers returned the boy to the ranch and had to serve a search warrant later to retrieve him at his mother’s request.
Tierra Blanca owner Scott Chandler said through his attorney, Pete Domenici Jr. of Albuquerque, that the ranch is “proud of its success in serving families and their at-risk children over the years.”
“While at TBR, most youth get on track to successful and rewarding lives outside the ranch,” Chandler said in the statement.
The ranch averages about 15 teens placed there voluntarily by parents. Some stay for more than a year.
The working ranch has been home to the High Country Youth Program for 20 years. It is run by the Chandler family and headed by Scott Chandler.
“TBR knows that the rights of parents to educate and raise their children in a manner they deem appropriate are precious and fundamental rights that lie at the core of our nation’s heritage,” Chandler said in his statement.
The teens are voluntarily placed at the ranch by their parents or, in some cases, by one parent. There have been custody disputes between parents over placement of some teens, according to police reports.
Parents of some teenagers placed in the program and Pegasus Legal Services for Children began asking for an investigation into the ranch earlier this year, claiming the program appeared to violate fundamental rights of the teenagers staying there.
In a series of letters, Pegasus executive director Elizabeth McGrath urged CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines to open an investigation into the program.
The ranch has been on CYFD’s radar since 2006, but the agency has taken no action.
At one point, the department was in the process of filing a cease-and-desist action in state court against the ranch because it was not licensed.
According to department records, a decision was reached at some point before the current administration taking office to treat the ranch as a “Wilderness Program” that would not fall under CYFD licensing regulations.
State records show that led to problems in following up on allegations of abuse of residents living at the ranch.
Gutierrez of the State Police confirmed his agency’s investigation in an email to the Journal on Thursday. Saavedra of CYFD stated in a letter to McGrath that “there is an active investigation.”
A CYFD spokesman on Friday said he was still gathering information in response to other Journal questions – including how the determination was made in 2006 or 2007 that the ranch was a wilderness program and therefore not subject to CYFD licensing. Or, why that status would deter CYFD from investigating an allegation of child abuse.
In documents obtained by the Journal, CYFD said it needed to be called in by a law enforcement agency and could not start its own investigation. State Police have now requested CYFD involvement.
Pegasus legal services disputes that interpretation of the state child abuse statutes, claiming the agency does have authority to investigate child abuse allegations at the ranch.
Pegasus director McGrath also said in a letter to CYFD Secretary Deines that it is obvious the Tierra Blanca Ranch program is a residential program and should be licensed by the state.