- Associated Press - Saturday, March 1, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A central New Mexico ranch for troubled youth became embroiled in a third lawsuit this week.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports (https://bit.ly/1jIBlt0) the grandparents of a former participant in the Tierra Blanca Ranch High Country Youth Program filed a complaint Thursday in state District Court in Santa Fe.

According to the complaint, James and Cheryl Morgan are seeking damages for their grandson’s treatment. They allege he was physically and emotionally abused and forced to work without compensation.

The complaint also names the state Children, Youth and Families Department as a defendant, saying the agency didn’t take corrective action.

The agency recently said its staff doesn’t have any authority to oversee the ranch because it is categorized as a wilderness program.

Scott and Colette Chandler, the husband and wife who run Tierra Blanca, have said their program doesn’t subject participants to any treatment that is illegal or done without parental consent.

The ranch settled its own lawsuit against the state Feb. 21, challenging an investigation into the program and a high-profile raid in October that sought custody of nine minors.

Under a signed agreement, Tierra Blanca agreed to give the Children, Youth and Families Department access to students and their files for the next 12 months. Ranch owners also agreed not to use restraints and to supervise teenagers placed in segregation.

Scott Chandler said the agreement provides a management structure without complex regulations like those the agency sought during the just-ended legislative session.

“The settlement demonstrates we can apply a simple, common-sense standard to the pertinent issues and arrive at an understanding,” he said in a recent statement, noting the agreement came “at an exceedingly heavy price.”

Children, Youth and Families Department spokesman Henry Varela said it gives the agency access to the children until it can try again next year to pass a law regulating such programs.

The settlement has no effect on a criminal investigation of the ranch, Varela said. That investigation by state police has been turned over to the Sierra County district attorney, he said.

State police in October served a search warrant on the ranch to investigate allegations of abuse, including claims that teens were shackled for months at a time.

No one was there when they arrived, sparking a high profile Amber Alert.

The children, who Chandler said had been on a previously scheduled camping trip, were all found safe with their parents.


Information from: The Santa Fe New Mexican, https://www.sfnewmexican.com

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