Youth ranch owner speaks out on allegations of abuse

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By Scott Stump

The owner of a ranch for troubled youths in New Mexico who has denied allegations of beating and shackling teenagers said on TODAY Monday that the camp does use restraints against the teens in its program in certain instances.

“That’s the crux of the big issue here is people don’t understand the types of kids that we end up dealing with, and the families that have to put children with us,’’ owner Scott Chandler told Matt Lauer. “These youths have been through many, many programs in various stages, but when we get them, they’ve been through these things.

“When we go into a detention center to pick up a child who’s been court-ordered, that we stood before a judge or something to have him placed in our program, yes, we might have to put him in restraints. It’s typical of the type of level of kids, but that is not the…people are making that what we are. That is actually very minimal of what we do.”

On Oct. 11, police in New Mexico executed a search warrant at Tierra Blanca following reports of abuse from former students at the ranch. An Amber Alert was issued when police discovered nine teenagers who were supposed to be living at the camp were not there.

“The search warrant revealed evidence that I cannot tell you precisely what it was, but did corroborate some of the allegations of some of those boys,’’ New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez told reporters.

The teens were later located and returned to their parents and legal guardians. Chandler told Lauer they were on a previously scheduled camping trip when police arrived, and he denied purposefully being absent on the day the authorities came with the warrant.

“We did not have any effort to do that,’’ said Chandler, who appeared on TODAY with his wife, Colette. “We were working just as we do, carrying on as we normally do, (and) spent a lot of time out in the wilderness doing activities. We had a court date the day before that we had scheduled, if they would’ve shown up. They actually said they didn’t have anybody able to come, and maybe we could’ve resolved this before it escalated.”

TODAY reached out to the New Mexico state police and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, and both declined to comment because of an ongoing investigation.

The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) has informed the judge hearing the case that it has significant evidence of medical and educational neglect, systematic emotional and psychological abuse, potential criminal child abuse, and shackling, handcuffing and hooding of children. Chandler told Lauer that he has been ordered by the judge not to comment on the specifics of the case. He added that parents who sign guardianship of their children over to him as part of the program are aware that restraints may be used.

“If your child is possibly incarcerated already, typically (parents) sign agreements,’’ Chandler said. “They know we have CYFD-signed agreements knowing that we do such things.”

For between $80 and $150 a day, dozens of families have sent their children to Tierra Blanca Ranch, which Chandler has run since 1994. The mother of one teen in the program says her son was abused at the ranch.

“This guy made it seem like there was hope there and my son was going to do great there,’’ Barbara Holler told TODAY. “They had to run miles and run for hours, and there was no counseling at all. None.”

Ryan Morgan, another former student in the program, was too emotional to speak about the alleged beating he took at the ranch, so former ranch member Mark Fleming commented on it.

“Knuckling him right in the forehead, just repetitively, over and over again,’’ Fleming told TODAY.

However, other teens painted a much different picture. TODAY spoke to six students who have been in the program and they said it was the right thing for them and helped their lives.

“In my 6 ½ years I've been there, I've never seen anything like that,’’ Dimo Bilynsky told TODAY.

“We look at it as, we care about kids,’’ Chandler told Lauer. “We want the kids to be safe. We want them to be successful. When you have kids getting 28s, 29s and 30s on the ACT…I challenged CYFD to produce any of their facilities that get those kinds of results out of their children. They want to talk education, but our kids get full scholarships. We had a kid graduate last May with 28 college credits.”

Chandler does not plan on changing his approach in the midst of the controversy.

“Right now, we’re moving forward,’’ he said. “We’re still carrying on with the 18-year-olds who are there voluntarily doing school and doing work as we do it. We’re looking at our other options, we’re staying positive, and we’re carrying forward.”