- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Cleve Cushing describes it as a call that changed his life.

At 5:27 p.m. Aug. 11, he first heard allegations that a couple working as house parents at the Christian Children’s Ranch in Eagle had sexually abused two girls in their care. Michael Paul Magill, 31, and Jennifer Nicole Magill, 32, later pleaded guilty to felony sex abuse charges. They have now been accused of exploitation of a child, allegedly involving a third victim - a 13-year-old girl who was secretly recorded while she was changing in her bedroom at the ranch, according to Ada County Deputy Prosecutor John Dinger.

“I was in total disbelief when I got the call,” Cushing said of the allegations. “I do not have the words to describe how sick we felt, the entire staff.”

The 74-year-old nonprofit is supported by private contributions from individuals and churches across the country, though primarily in the Northwest. The cost per month of providing care and schooling is about $2,000 per child, and families cover costs on a sliding scale. Most don’t pay anything.

The ranch’s budget over the past five years has hovered around $430,000. But donations last year were down about $100,000, and Cushing believes publicity surrounding the sexual misconduct by the Magills hasn’t helped with fundraising.

“We’re trying to rebuild people’s trust and confidence,” said Cushing, who has been involved with the ranch just three years. He said he’s lost 12 pounds since August, trying to figure out what else can be done to protect the children.

State officials told the Statesman in late January that the ranch properly did criminal background checks and vetted the couple’s work and personal references when hiring them. The Magills had no priors, and Jennifer Magill had worked as a counselor with children.

Cushing worries about what else he could have done. He said he asked law enforcement officials if he could polygraph potential house parents. But he found out that’s not legal: Both state and federal law prohibit most private employers from using polygraph tests as part of the hiring process or during employment. There are a few exceptions, largely for government agencies (including law enforcement) or for cases where employees of a private firm are suspected of embezzlement or theft.

The federal law was a response to concerns about lie detector tests and whether measuring physiological changes actually can determine if a person is dishonest, said Dylan A. Eaton, an employment attorney at Boise law firm Parsons Behle & Latimer.

Repairing homelessness, abuse, neglect

The Christian Children’s Ranch currently has a staff of seven, including three teachers. The children, who are newborns up to 18, come from a mix of troubled backgrounds. Many are from homes broken by drug or alcohol abuse and incarceration. The ranch aims to provide love, stability and normalcy by placing them in the care of house parents in one of four homes at the site; a fifth home is set aside for house parents who do relief work.

“We have taken kids - over and over and over - who were way behind in school and caught them up. Many have been baptized in the Christian faith,” said Tim Beatty, president of the board of Boise Christian Homes Inc., the parent group for the ranch and a retirement village. “A number have gone on to Boise Bible College, Boise State and other colleges and universities. They’ve been launched into good, productive lives as young adults.”

Cushing started as a board member and then stepped into the role as director two years ago. The 63-year-old is a numbers guy, serving as chief financial officer at several businesses and owner of his own consulting firm. He’s a father of three grown children and two grandchildren, and that’s a part of why he got involved with the ranch.

“Everyone on this staff wants these kids to have the advantages that our kids have had growing up,” Cushing said. “I just want to see kids have a chance to succeed.”

He’s sent out about 3,000 letters to previous donors and to other churches across the country, in the hopes that they will contribute to the ranch.

“I really want people to understand that while this couple had caused huge damage to this program, their actions in no way are indicative of the staff that I have here, who care for the kids - and have been doing it for years, with little or no recognition,” he said.

The ranch began as the Boise Christian Children’s Home in 1946 on a couple of acres on 36th Street, now the site of the Christian Retirement Village. It has operated for several decades at an 80-acre site off of Linder Road, not far from the new Mormon temple that’s under construction.

The ranch has about 10 buildings, including a school, houses, a barn and a shop. There’s a pasture with cows, horses and a llama - and several friendly dogs and cats.

It’s currently licensed to care for up to 24 children, though it has accommodations for up to 40. There are just six children there now. They’re living in one house on the property; the other three main houses are unoccupied, awaiting funding and qualified house parents. Four of the homes were occupied in 2014 but two sets of house parents moved on last year, before the Magills were kicked out in August due to the abuse allegations.

The salary for the houseparent job - $5,400 a year for each person - is a deal-breaker for many. Benefits include room, board, health insurance and a vehicle (a ranch van). The basic qualifications: Be 21 or older, have two years of experience working with children and clear a background check. The school uses a Christian curriculum that includes daily Bible study, and house parents are expected to provide a statement of Christian faith and values.

The ranch aims to reunite children with their families, though that’s often not possible. The children typically stay for at least six months - on average, they’re there for 4 1/2 years. Once, four children (siblings) lived there for 11 years. Two children will graduate from high school there this year, the 25th graduating class.

Pornography and a lawsuit

In late January, the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office filed new charges against the Magills. John Magill was charged with two counts of sexual exploitation of a child - one alleging production of child porn, the other alleging possession, Dinger said. Jennifer Magill was charged with one count of sexual exploitation of a child for alleged possession of child porn.

The Magills and the ranch also face a civil suit from the parents of one of the girls who was sexually abused. The suit, filed Jan. 13, says the girl had been placed at the ranch in 2012 due to problems with emotional outbursts, and academic problems stemming from reactive-attachment disorder developed due to neglect while at an orphanage when she was a baby.

Due to staffing changes at the ranch, she came into the care of the Magills in the summer of 2014, the suit says. It alleges the girl was abused three times in the summer of 2015, and ranch employees failed to report known abuse to law enforcement within 24 hours and prevent repeated abuse.

Cushing previously told the Statesman he told the Magills to leave the ranch within about four hours of hearing about the allegations. He recently declined to comment further on the matter.

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Information from: Idaho Statesman, https://www.idahostatesman.com

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