New Mexico In Depth
Scott Chandler, the owner of a controversial youth program that’s under investigation, described Bruce Staeger, 18, as a “fellow brother” whose death Sept. 23 in a vehicle rollover he grieved.
But in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed Feb. 10 against Chandler, the owner of Tierra Blanca Ranch High Country Youth Program, Staeger’s mother contends her son was treated like anything but family.
During his stay at the ranch for troubled youth, which is located south of Hillsboro in Sierra County, the teen was “handcuffed and shackled and carried from a pole by his bound hands and feet as one would carry a large dead animal,” the suit alleges.
Chandler, the suit says, poured jalapeño pepper juice into the boy’s eyes and kicked dirt on him. Another time Staeger was forced to eat horse dung, the lawsuit alleges.
Similar claims can be found in two other suits – one filed in late December by South Carolina mother Barbara Holler, whose son was at Tierra Blanca with Staeger, and another filed Feb. 27 in District Court in Santa Fe by Cloudcroft grandmother Cheryl Morgan.
Both allege the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) failed to do its job by not requiring Tierra Blanca Ranch to become licensed despite receiving information years ago about alleged abuses. Licensing would have brought more state oversight, which would have prohibited certain activities at the ranch.
While the actions of Chandler and his staff have garnered most of the attention, the civil suits and other developments raise a question: Why didn’t CYFD bring Tierra Blanca under direct state oversight years ago?
Even before the recent lawsuits, some child advocates argued that CYFD had the authority, and responsibility, to license Tierra Blanca. CYFD also took that position several years ago; however, for reasons that are not clear, it did not follow through with licensure.
The lawsuits are the latest in a string of controversies for CYFD, which has faced criticism because of staff shortages, unspent money, and its handling of several recent cases in which children previously referred to authorities were later allegedly victimized by parents or custodians. Albuquerque resident Omaree Varela, a nine-year-old boy, died after being kicked by his mother in December.
In the matter of Tierra Blanca, all three civil suits allege that some children were shackled at their ankles and handcuffed for extended periods of time, beaten by staff and other students, required to perform ranch work without pay, and punished by being deprived of food or made to perform extreme exercises like running up and down slopes or running while carrying truck tires.
Chandler has denied the allegations in the recent Staeger suit and said other allegations of child abuse and neglect, the subject of an ongoing police investigation, have “blown out of proportion” the way his program operates. To date, no criminal charges have been filed involving alleged abuse at the ranch. Michael Myers, the driver in the Sept. 23 vehicle rollover that led to Staeger’s death, has been charged with reckless driving in Sierra County.
The state now considers Tierra Blanca to be a “wilderness program” and not subject to CYFD licensure, although Chandler agreed last month to give the state limited oversight. Legislation supported by CYFD that would have required licensing of such programs, however, died in the session that ended Feb. 20.
‘… why wouldn’t you want licensing?’
When she sent her son Coulton Quevedo to Tierra Blanca in 2010 in a desperate attempt to improve his behavior, Holler said in an interview, she was sold on the program’s claims it would instill “responsibility” and “self-respect and respect for others” through “sound Bible principles” and “appropriate discipline” in a wilderness setting, as its website advertised.
Holler said she never imagined the facility could operate without state licensing. “Not being licensed, whether (parents) sign a power of attorney or not, is a very dangerous thing,” Holler said of agreements parents were required to sign designating Chandler the children’s guardian at the ranch. “If you are doing the right thing, why wouldn’t you want licensing?”
State licensing would bar Tierra Blanca from withholding food, requiring forced exercise as punishment, and blocking child contact with parents unless therapeutically justified, said Grace Spulak, staff attorney for Albuquerque-based Pegasus Legal Services for Children, which began raising concerns about Tierra Blanca last year after some complaints came to light.
No licensed residential facility for youths in the state can use ankle shackles, said CYFD spokesman Henry Varela.
Licensing also allows CYFD to inspect Tierra Blanca even in the absence of an abuse complaint and subjects the facility to regulations covering everything from employee background checks to transportation, nutrition plans to the use of mobile homes.
The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez maintains that because Tierra Blanca is not licensed, CYFD does not have oversight power or authority to investigate abuse complaints when first reported. Law enforcement, under state law, investigates abuse or neglect complaints involving facilities like Tierra Blanca, and can request CYFD assistance.
On Feb. 21, CYFD announced a civil settlement with Tierra Blanca that gives the state agency limited oversight over Chandler’s ranch for one year “or until regulations applicable” to the High Country Youth Program are adopted.
Under the settlement, Tierra Blanca agreed to stop using “mechanical restraints” and must grant CYFD access to residents and their files without prior notice. The ranch also must immediately file an incident report with a state liaison if there is a client death, an attempted escape, an allegation of client abuse or neglect, or an employee action that leads to serious physical injury or “psychological impairment.”
The settlement, however, lets Tierra Blanca avoid most requirements of licensed facilities and, as Chandler said in a prepared statement to NMID, “does not alter our methods.”
Chandler said caring for high-risk youths “can be accomplished without hundreds of pages of regulations. The settlement demonstrates we can apply a simple, common sense, standard to the pertinent issues and arrive at an understanding.”
The settlement with Chandler was the “last straw” that led her to sue, Cheryl Morgan said.
“I’m still asking them (state officials) how can you take children and let them go back to a place that’s not licensed?” said the Cloudcroft grandmother, whose civil suit alleges her grandson was physically and emotionally abused during the year he spent at Tierra Blanca ending in October 2012.
The criminal investigation
The lawsuits against Tierra Blanca Ranch are the latest challenge for Chandler’s discipline-heavy wilderness program, which occupies a 30,000-acre area in the Black Range that’s surrounded by the Gila National Forest.
For more than a year, law enforcement – first the Sierra County Sheriff’s Office, then the State Police – have investigated allegations that Tierra Blanca staff abused children, including body-slamming one restrained boy to the ground and repeatedly striking another in the face for failing to hold a “post-sitting” position – maintaining a sitting posture with one’s back against a pole or wall but without any support.
The investigation was sparked in late 2012 by a detailed memorandum filed with CYFD by San Diego attorney Steve Cowen, whose son stayed at the ranch for 10 months ending July 2012. The memo alleged that ranch staff shackled boys for weeks at a time for defiant behavior, limited food, encouraged and allowed boys to beat other students, and sometimes physically abused children themselves.
Cowen’s son is at odds with his father. The son, like other former ranch residents, has defended Tierra Blanca’s strict regimen as a positive influence in his life, both in an interview and at a news conference held in Albuquerque in October.
Tierra Blanca says that, for $150 per day, it helps troubled teens “who have become unmanageable and uncontrollable… turn their lives around” through a ranch experience that includes positive role-modeling and “outdoor skills development,” according to court documents. Stays typically last one year.
Soon after the police investigation became public last year, Chandler said at an Oct. 10 press conference the abuse claims were “exaggerated and blown out of proportion.”
The next day, State Police swooped down on the ranch to take custody of nine teens in the program at the time, only to find them gone. The state issued an Amber Alert for the children. Tierra Blanca attorney Pete Domenici Jr. said Chandler was returning the youths to their parents.
Later the governor said a search warrant executed by State Police at Tierra Blanca during the failed attempt to collect the children “did corroborate with the allegations of some of those boys.” Martinez, a former prosecutor who built a reputation prosecuting child abuse cases in Las Cruces, did not divulge the evidence.
Seventh Judicial District Attorney Clint Wellborn, who is reviewing the case, said the police investigation continues. He also would not reveal what police have found.
Legislation fails to pass
The legislation to require “wilderness youth programs” like Tierra Blanca Ranch to be licensed by CYFD passed in the House but died in the Senate during the just-ended legislative session. Touting his program’s “superlative” academic results, Chandler opposed the bill in personal appearances before legislative committees. Joining him at one hearing were two former program participants and the father of a third.
The Senate sponsor of the bill, Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, said she would try again next year to pass legislation giving CYFD licensing oversight over Tierra Blanca.
“When you’re unregulated, unlicensed and way out in the middle of nowhere, I don’t think that’s healthy for children,” Beffort said.
Cowen, whose complaint to CYFD launched the police
investigation of Tierra Blanca, said he was disappointed that, in the absence
of a licensing requirement, the settlement agreement allows the ranch to
continue accepting students.
“I’m surprised they allowed them to reopen at all,” Cowen said. “Before allowing Tierra Blanca Ranch to reopen, you’d think the state would at least wait for the state prosecutor to decide whether they were going to file criminal charges.”
The authority to license
Some say the state has had the authority to license the youth program for years and could have, and should have, required the licensure.
Pegasus Legal Services for Children wrote Martinez and CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines in May of 2013 arguing that the ranch should be licensed as a residential program. “Even a superficial review of the program at Tierra Blanca Ranch demonstrates that our state government has failed to ensure the safety of children placed at the ranch,” they wrote.
Spokesmen for CYFD and the governor did not answer written questions seeking an explanation for the administration’s view that Tierra Blanca is not subject to licensure.
This is not the first time the ranch has attracted attention. CYFD received a complaint about alleged child abuse and neglect at the ranch in 2006, Holler’s lawsuit says, “but continued to allow the business to operate without a license and without taking steps to ensure it was providing services to youth in a safe and reasonable manner.”
In August 2006, about the time the CYFD wrestled with the Tierra Blanca licensing issue, California writer Thomas Carlsen complained to CYFD that his 14-year-old son had been abused and neglected during his stay at the ranch from May 2004 to July 2006. Once, when the boy was having a seizure, a staff member reportedly skeptical about the child’s condition kicked him in the head, according to a state record of the complaint. The boy claimed he experienced eight to 12 seizures during his last year at Tierra Blanca, but he never received medical attention and his parents were never informed.
The case was referred to law enforcement but no charges were
And CYFD knew more than five years ago about allegations that Tierra Blanca shackled the ankles of some children, agency records indicate. In September 2008 State Police picked up a 16-year-old California boy, his ankles shackled, who had run away from the ranch.
According to CYFD records, the department’s own legal office concluded in August 2005 that Tierra Blanca provided “child care residential services” and needed to be licensed. But in a February 2006 letter to then-Gov. Bill Richardson, Chandler argued that, “because we have parents give us temporary guardianship of their youths while they are enrolled in our program, we are not subject to licensure.”
CYFD in early 2006 threatened to seek the closure of Tierra Blanca if it did not obtain a license, but for reasons that are unclear, that push stalled. Varela, the CYFD spokesman, said he could not explain why the licensing effort stopped under the previous administration.
Holler said her son, like Staeger, was also involved in the rollover of a truck driven by a Tierra Blanca employee. Her son was not seriously injured, but Holler said the ranch never informed her of the incident.
A Tierra Blanca statement about the suit said “we grieve” over Staeger’s death in a “tragic accident” because the 18-year-old “was a part of our family.” The statement adds: “We are also extremely saddened at the attempts of unknown parties to make totally outrageous claims of abuse against Scott Chandler which he as well as many others know to be false.”
In a separate statement about the CYFD settlement granting the state limited oversight of Tierra Blanca, Chandler focused on the rights of parents to determine how their children are raised.
“How many more school shootings, attacks, robberies and families abused by out of control youths will we tolerate?” Chandler’s statement said. “While these issues are a danger to the youths, families and the public even more dangerous is the slippery slope of parents losing their right to parent their own children.”
Albuquerque attorney Timothy White, representing the family of Bruce Staeger, the teen who died in the rollover, said trying to hold CYFD accountable for alleged abuse is a difficult proposition because the state did not require Tierra Blanca to be licensed and the state is generally immune from liability unless negligence can be proven. He agreed that the ranch should have been licensed long ago, but said that’s now a non-issue for Staeger’s mother.
“My client doesn’t want them licensed. My client wants it shut down,” White said. “She wants Scott Chandler to never be able to care for children ever again.”
Read the lawsuits: