When 13-year-old Cody Thompson was sentenced for burglarizing a house, his mother gave him a choice: complete his probation at Pinehaven Christian Children's Ranch in Saint Ignatius, or do time at a juvenile detention center closer to the family's Illinois home. Thompson chose Pinehaven, an easy decision considering its bucolic setting and promises of improved discipline.
Now, more than a year after her son arrived at the Christian youth home, Laraine Cornwell claims Pinehaven's physical beauty covers an ugly reality.
"No one knows what's going on there," she says. "He couldn't even say anything, or he'd get in trouble."
Cornwell's son is one of four children to run away from the St. Ignatius facility since July 15. During the past weeks, all four teenagers have been found. But the runaways—and the media scrutiny following them—constitute the latest challenge for Pinehaven, as former alumni come forward recounting personal stories of alleged physical and verbal abuse.
Pinehaven founder and director Bob Larsson disputes the allegations. He stands by the center's methods of discipline for troubled children.
"You can't treat people the way that they say that we did," Larsson says. "They're not deprived of food and water and adequate clothing."
In April, former Pinehaven resident David Krug filed a formal compliant with the Lake County Sheriff's Office. Krug alleges Pinehaven staffers used unnecessary force during his stay.
"There were some incidences that I would categorize as physical abuse," he says. "I was pushed down the stairs on one occasion."
Krug is the only former resident to file a formal complaint, but he isn't the only one speaking out. When Krug launched a Facebook page for alumni last year, past residents by the dozen began posting their memories of life at the Flathead Valley ranch.
Brittany Bingham moved to Pinehaven when she was 16, after her mother and father were hired to work as house parents. During the three years Bingham lived at the youth home, and in later visits with her family, she says she witnessed staffers using inappropriate force. Specifically, Bingham points to tactics employed when Pinehaven employees doled out a typical ranch punishment: shoveling manure in the bullpen.
"I've seen a girl dragged down there," says Bingham, now a Missoula resident. "It's all gravel and her back was cut up. I saw a kid during wintertime—it was so cold out—and he had taken off his gloves to help shovel the manure, because it was extremely hard. It was frozen. And afterwards, all of his fingernails were falling off. He had frostbite. Those kinds of things are never reported. If a kid gets an injury like frostbite, his parents weren't told. It's extremely hush-hush there."
Former residents say insufficient regulatory oversight of religious youth homes in Montana allows Pinehaven to get away with situations like what Bingham describes. Private religious youth homes like Pinehaven, they argue, should be subjected to the same regulatory scrutiny as non-denominational facilities in the state.
For years, youth advocates complained too little supervision over private youth homes left kids vulnerable. In 2007, the Montana Legislature passed a law requiring all private alternative adolescent residential and outdoor programs achieve licensure through the state's Department of Labor and Industry. After the bill passed, advocates touted the legislation as a move forward, yet the law specifically excluded religious youth homes like Pinehaven.
Pinehaven alum James Mason, who is assisting Krug in rallying other former residents, hopes to change the exemption when the Montana Legislature convenes this winter.
"I pray for it," says Mason. "There's no accountability from the outside."
Larsson, who has run Pinehaven since 1976, says if half of the allegations launched against his facility were true, law enforcement would have shut him down a long time ago. Mechanisms already exist to protect children from abuse. Plus, he adds, Pinehaven houses troubled youth—some with criminal histories, like Thompson—and strict discipline is a necessary part of the program.
"We're here willingly taking care of other peoples' problem kids," Larsson says. "I have stacks of letters from families of kids who were here, saying, 'You saved my life. Yeah, you had to discipline me, but that's what I needed.'"
Larsson, 81, also points to the two-month investigation conducted by Lake County Detective Michael Gehl, which turned up nothing on Krug's child abuse allegations.
The detective wonders why, if there are so many alleged Pinehaven "victims," he's only received one formal complaint.
"To this day there's only one person who's made a complaint—that's Mr. Krug," Gehl says.
Nevertheless, the number of Pinehaven critics continues to grow since Thompson and the other teens went missing in July. Emboldened, Krug says he plans to explore other legal options while also pushing for legislative change.
In the meantime, Thompson, back at home in Illinois, will have to deal with the legal fallout yet to come. It remains to be seen how authorities there will deal with him. But his mother, referencing her son's negative experience at Pinehaven, says any decision will be an improvement.
"He made it through Pinehaven," Cornwell says. "He can make it through just about anything."