The Montana ACLU is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Illinois state courts are breaking the law by sentencing juveniles to Pinehaven Christian Children's Ranch in Saint Ignatius.
"It's a compulsion of religion that violates our constitutional right to separation of church and state," says ACLU staff attorney Anna Conley.
The request comes on the heels of multiple allegations of abuse launched by former residents and staffers against the private home for troubled kids. Four former employees claim in interviews, notarized affidavits and written statements obtained by the Independent that other Pinehaven staffers used excessive forcesuch as chokingto subdue residents. Former employees also say that Pinehaven youth receive insufficient medical and psychiatric care. In 2004, a Pinehaven staffer received a 10-year prison sentence for raping two underage residents. Another Pinehaven employee alleged in written testimony that in 2006 a female Pinehaven staffer had a year-long "affair" with a 17-year-old boy who lived at the home.
A 2010 investigation by the Lake County Sheriff's Department found the home hadn't violated any laws. Pinehaven founder Bob Larsson has consistently defended the home's methods for managing young residents.
Pinehaven drew national attention in March when CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" reported on the alleged abuse. Cooper's show highlighted the fact that Illinois state courts have ordered dozens of youth to Pinehaven during the course of several years.
At least one of those juveniles came from Lawrence County, Ill. Lawrence County prosecutor Lisa Wade says all individuals sentenced through the Lawrence County court must consent to attend a religious facility before being ordered to Pinehaven. "It's not mandatory," Wade says.
Pinehaven alum James Mason solicited help from the ACLU. He says problems at Pinehaven stem largely from insufficient state oversight. Montana law requires that all "private alternative adolescent residential and outdoor programs" be licensed through the state Department of Labor and Industry. But the Montana Legislature has exempted religious homes such as Pinehaven. A 2011 bill that would have removed that exemption died in committee.
Mason says he's now pleased to have the ACLU's help, but after years of fighting to protect other Pinehaven kids, he's unsure that federal authorities will fill the oversight void left by the state. "I don't expect the DOJ to act on it," he says.
The DOJ did not return messages from the Independent seeking comment for this article.