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Utah boarding school under fire

Group is seeking a federal probe into abuse allegations

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A children's advocacy group is calling for a federal investigation into a northern Utah boarding school it claims mistreats students, including restraining them face down in manure.

Based on sworn statements of four former employees, the California-based Emancipation Project says the Majestic Ranch is unsanitary and unsafe for the children living there.

Majestic Ranch is a working ranch for troubled children near Randolph in Rich County. It houses 55 children ages 8 to 14.

"We believe the people of Utah will not put up with child abuse," said Thomas F. Coleman, a civil-rights attorney who heads the Emancipation Project. "We should not have to go to the federal government when we have hard evidence like this."

Thomas and Isabelle Zehnder, of Vancouver, Wash., distributed a report Zehnder compiled about the ranch to state lawmakers and elected officials last week. They also plan to send it to Congress and the U.S. attorney general.

The 13-page report outlines allegations of abusive practices, dirty living conditions, lack of medical care and unhealthy foods. It also chastises the state Division of Child Protective Services and local authorities for not intervening.

Majestic Ranch director Tammy Johnson said the report contained "serious misrepresentations." She called the accusations "definitely a personal vendetta" on the part of disgruntled former employees and even state officials who want the program shut down.

"We're not going to continue to sit back and let employees and the state attack us," she said. "We really feel like we've been a bull's-eye target for too long."

At Majestic's behest, the Rich County Sheriff's Office is investigating trespassing and theft allegations against former employees, Sheriff Dale Stacey said. No charges have been filed.

Because Majestic Ranch considers itself a boarding school, it does not need an operating license under state law. But that will change.

The 2005 Utah Legislature passed a bill that requires licenses for boarding schools.

"It allows us to review basic health and safety conditions," said Ken Stettler, Utah Department of Human Services' Office of Licensing director.

Licensure also provides for employee background checks, unannounced inspections and follow-up on complaints, he said.

Utah Division of Child and Family Services caseworkers, state health and local fire and police officials toured the ranch last month.

"The bulk of the complaints were deemed to be not credible," the sheriff said, noting there were a couple of minor fire-safety issues.

Child welfare officials did not find any children in danger.

"While (Majestic Ranch) may be doing things we don't like, there was nothing that we considered abuse," said Carol Sisco, Department of Human Services spokeswoman. "There were allegations, but we weren't able to find that any specific children were abused or neglected."

Karleen Farnsworth quit her job as a Majestic Ranch house parent in January after three weeks.

"I was unable to stand it any longer," she said.

A former state youth corrections worker, Farnsworth said she saw children punished by having to stand outside on milk crates in sub-freezing temperatures or forced to shovel manure with their bare hands.

Uncooperative children were wrestled to the ground, sometimes face first in manure, according to the affidavit of former worker Jared Quick.

Johnson said workers do use a physical restraint hold on out-of-control children as a last resort, but they can't choose the time or place it happens.

There was an incident where a child swinging a pitchfork at another child was restrained in a manure pile, she said.

"It's certainly not malicious," Johnson said.

The food and water made children sick, and those on medication for mental illnesses received the wrong dosages of medication, Farnsworth said. Also, she said an outbreak of scabies among some girls went untreated.

Johnson said children live in clean rooms, eat dietitian-approved meals and get proper medical care.

Majestic Ranch is one eight programs affiliated with St. George-based Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools or WWASPS. Allegations of abuse and neglect have been leveled against several of its facilities the past few years, all of which company officials have denied.

California Congressman George Miller has repeatedly called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate WWASPS and similar programs.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com