Dave Bingham worked as a house parent at Pinehaven Christian Children's Ranch in St. Ignatius for five years. He still remembers the sounds that the kids made when they were restrained with what ranch staffers referred to as "pressure pointing."
"That really hurts, just to hear the kids screaming," says Bingham, who worked at the ranch with his wife, Denise. "I watched a 17-year-old boy, tough as nails, but somebody else was getting pressure pointed, and he was screaming he was so afraid of what was coming after him."
Pressure pointing involves placing a hand on the neck to subdue a child. Past Pinehaven residents say that the sensation of being pressure pointed is akin to being choked. While the technique marks perhaps the most egregious example of alleged abuses at the 1,120-acre ranch for troubled kids, Bingham says it's far from the only one.
In 2010, Dave and Denise Bingham left the ranch with several other staffers who had grown increasingly alarmed by how Pinehaven kids were treated, Bingham says. "We got to talking, as more of us got putting pieces of the puzzle together, the picture was getting ugly," he says.
Ranch residents range in age from 4 to 19 and come from all over the country. Some ranch residents have criminal records themselves, while others have parents who are incarcerated. It's not unusual for Pinehaven youth to struggle with substance abuse and mental illness.
Bingham says that misbehaving Pinehaven residents were not allowed to speak to their parents for months at a time. Teens with learning challenges faced penalties for failing to grasp lessons; Bingham recalls one girl who froze during tests was frequently sent to the ranch's "bullpen" to shovel manure for hours at a time. A notarized affidavit from a former staff member alleges children did not receive counseling from mental health professionals. One former ranch employee submitted testimony that says house parents tried to control homosexual activity by locking teenagers in their rooms and leaving them to urinate in a bucket.
Since 2010, former Pinehaven employees, alumni, state lawmakers and child protection advocates have increasingly called upon authorities to thoroughly investigate ranch operations. Pinehaven made national headlines last year when CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" reported on abuse allegations there. In a series titled "Ungodly discipline," the program aired footage of one Pinehaven house parent, Ned Kent, illustrating the pressure-point technique.
On Feb. 14, Montana lawmakers began deliberating whether to increase scrutiny of private religious youth homes like Pinehaven. While the state currently requires that all "private alternative adolescent residential and outdoor programs" achieve state licensure, religious youth homes are exempt from such oversight.
House Bill 236, introduced by Missoula Democratic Rep. Ellie Hill, would require private religious youth homes to report to the state how behavior is managed, whether regular communication with family members is allowed and if residents are receiving medication and psychological care.
Supporters of HB 236 include the Montana Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs, which oversees youth homes, Disability Rights Montana, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Montana's Child and Family Services Division.
Child and Family Services administrator Sarah Corbally testified last week that the religious exemption leaves a dangerous regulatory void.
"There is no recourse against the facility or the person who works at the facility, who actually abused or neglected that child," Corbally said. "I can tell you that there are situations in facilities where we have multiple ongoing substantiations, and there is absolutely nothing further than can be done by our agency."
When contacted by the Independent, CFS confirmed that it has received complaints about Pinehaven. But state law prohibits the agency from releasing the number of complaints filed against the ranch.
Despite the mounting allegations, Pinehaven Director Bob Larsson has steadfastly maintained that his operation uses appropriate tools to restrain who are often unruly youth. He says that staffers have stopped using pressure pointing. "We don't spank, we don't use any inflicting pain," he told lawmakers during last week's hearing.
During the hearing, Larsson showed a 20-minute slide show that featured photos of smiling kids milking cows, canoeing and woodworking against a backdrop of the Mission Mountains.
"We do not apologize a bit for being a church-run facility," Larsson said, adding that tough love should not be mistaken for abuse. "We believe that the Bible is the word of God."
Larsson contends that constitutionally mandated religious protections assure him the freedom to operate the ranch without state intrusion. The Montana Family Foundation's Jeff Laszloffy agrees. Laszloffy told lawmakers that they would be mistaken to think that increased state oversight guarantees painless rehabilitation of rebellious kids. As proof, he pointed to data that shows dozens of assaults took place at Montana's two state-run youth correctional facilities last year. He noted that at Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility, where juvenile males are held, one staffer was disciplined for using excessive force.
"Some things, like incidents of violence or abuse," Laszloffy said, "they go along with the territory."
Only one other private youth home came forward to oppose Hill's bill: the Ranch for Kids Project based out of Eureka, which garnered international headlines last summer for refusing to allow Russian government emissaries to inspect the facility. Attorneys for the state of Montana argue that the Eureka ranch declared itself a religious institution to evade oversight.
On Feb. 22, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on HB 236. Hill isn't optimistic that her bill will receive support from the Republican-dominated committee. She predicts, however, that if lawmakers don't take action, Pinehaven residents and their families will.
"I would not be surprised to see a class action lawsuit," she says.