Bad behavior 

Child abuse claims plague Pinehaven youth home

Two weeks ago, Missoula Police apprehended two runaways from Pinehaven Christian Children's Ranch in St. Ignatius, bringing to six the total number of teenagers who have fled the private youth home for troubled kids since July 15.

The incident, during which two teens made their way to Missoula and allegedly stole a BB gun from Walmart before attempting to break into a car, highlights a problem Pinehaven—and law enforcement—may no longer be able to ignore. A growing number of alumni and former staffers claim that the ranch's young residents are fleeing from physical and emotional abuse.

According to notarized affidavits and written testimony from five past ranch employees, Pinehaven staffers allegedly use excessive force—like choking, for instance—to subdue residents. Former youth home employees assert in those documents, obtained by the Independent, that kids also receive insufficient medical and psychiatric care. And, on at least two occasions, once in 2004 and again in 2006, Pinehaven employees engaged in sexual activity with residents under the age of 18.

"I will no longer be silent about the abuse...I know has happened toward many of the children of Pinehaven," says Lynnette McClenahan, who worked as an administrative assistant at the ranch between 2003 and 2007.

For months former Pinehaven staffers and residents have called on law enforcement and state regulators to investigate the facility. Whistleblowers' efforts were emboldened recently when a new ally, Jeanne Windham, who in 2005 represented House District 12, which includes St. Ignatius, signed on to help them sound the alarm.

"There are basic standards of care for children with emotional and psychological problems, and they're not being met," Windham says.

She describes instances, corroborated by written testimony, in which residents were frostbitten when forced to shovel manure in subzero temperatures, or locked in rooms with pee buckets in an effort to control homosexual activity.

click to enlarge A staffer at Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch baptizes a resident. The youth home draws from biblical teachings in its efforts to help troubled youth. “We don’t pretend to be a mental health treatment center,” says ranch founder and director Bob Larsson. “We’re a Christian home for kids.” - PHOTO COURTESY PINEHAVEN
  • Photo courtesy Pinehaven
  • A staffer at Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch baptizes a resident. The youth home draws from biblical teachings in its efforts to help troubled youth. “We don’t pretend to be a mental health treatment center,” says ranch founder and director Bob Larsson. “We’re a Christian home for kids.”

Pinehaven founder and director Bob Larsson disputes the allegations. After 35 years heading the facility, he stands by Pinehaven's methods for strictly disciplining troubled—and often unruly—children.

"We have far more success stories and people who would climb on board to give you their testimonies than people who are trying to claim there was something the matter," Larsson says.

Windham had been friendly with Pinehaven administration prior to serving in the 2005 Legislature. She even attended services at St. Ignatius Christian Church, which Larsson founded. So when the Montana Legislature moved to regulate private youth homes in 2005, Windham introduced, at Larsson's request, an amendment excluding religious facilities like Pinehaven from state scrutiny.

"Had I known, quite honestly, what I know now, I would never have offered that amendment," she says.

The state requires all "private alternative adolescent residential and outdoor programs" to achieve licensure through Montana's Department of Labor and Industry. Windham's amendment specifically excluded religious youth homes. Years after serving in the Legislature, Windham began hearing stories from former Pinehaven residents about alleged abuse. The assertions troubled Windham, and prompted her last spring to launch her own investigation.

"What I have learned," says Windham, who now lives in Portland, "is either this is a mass conspiracy and all these people have gotten together and tell the same story—including past staff members, two of whom I know very well—or, how sad is this that it's just going unaddressed?"

Windham now finds herself leading the attempt to shine a spotlight on Pinehaven. That effort suffered a significant setback in the Montana Legislature on Feb. 16, when the House Business and Labor Committee, at the urging of the Montana Family Foundation, tabled House Bill 394. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, would have mandated state regulation of religious youth homes.

Larsson, 81, argues that creating state mechanisms to oversee his Christian organization would violate constitutional protections. And he maintains that if half of the allegations against his facility were true, law enforcement would have shut him down a long time ago. He points to existing legal mechanisms intended to protect children from abuse.

Last year Lake County conducted a two-month investigation of Pinehaven in response to allegations leveled by former ranch resident David Krug. Lake County Detective Michael Gehl cleared the facility of wrongdoing.

"The Sheriff's Department and the county attorney said there is no law broken here," Larsson says.

Gehl wasn't available for comment, but Lake County's new sheriff, Jay Doyle, says his department is available to investigate additional formal allegations brought forward against Pinehaven.

"If the alleged victims would like to report a crime, that's something we could look into," Doyle says.

Windham doesn't buy it. She says local law enforcement is simply too entrenched in St. Ignatius' close-knit community to thoroughly and objectively scrutinize what's going on at Pinehaven. She's now asking the Montana Department of Justice to launch an inquiry.

Department of Justice Investigations Bureau Chief John Strandell says he's confident Lake County is capable of dealing with its own affairs, though the department is willing to intervene if asked.

"It depends on Lake County officials," Strandell says.

As for Windham, she'll continue trying to expose the alleged child abuse at Pinehaven until she's satisfied that kids sent there are safe.

"I need to sleep at night," she says.

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