ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - A program for troubled youth in southern New Mexico is fighting back against shocking allegations of abuse involving claims some of the teens were beaten and shackled.
In a lawsuit filed in Sierra County Tuesday, the ranch's owner, Scott Chandler, claims the state Children, Youth and Families Department has not been handling the investigation properly.
"Numerous allegations of what we consider inappropriate threats to the parents of the children who are in our program," Tierra Blanca attorney Pete Domenici Jr. said.
Chandler held a news conference in Albuquerque Thursday morning where he lauded the program and denied allegations of abuse.
"They're baseless, and we do not do anything that's illegal," Chandler said. "We have operated in plain view. We have signed agreements that authorize us to restrain when needed."
Chandler claimed CYFD has threatened to shut down the ranch on Friday.
Domenici told KRQE News 13 the ranch has a hearing on their court filings next Tuesday and says they were notified late Thursday that CYFD has requested custody hearings on four of the youth at the ranch.
The Tierra Blanca Ranch website promotes a "simple life" where parents can send troubled and at-risk youth to turn their lives around.
It's a stark contrast to the allegations that have arisen against the ranch in the Black Range southwest of Truth or Consequences.
In video obtained by KRQE News 13, one teen told investigators from the Sierra County Sheriff's Office that he and other residents would "mostly run and work our butts off" at the ranch.
The teen's guardian told investigators he spent Thanksgiving shackled.
In another case, employees allegedly told boys to beat fellow residents who weren’t following orders.
“The things I was made to do to my friends…it was wrong,” one former resident told investigators. “Physical beatings – punchings, shaking, just usually a punch to the gut or something.”
Officers called to the ranch on one occasion found a boy in shackles. He had escaped and called police on a satellite telephone he took from the ranch.
New Mexico State Police and CYFD confirmed the privately-funded, unlicensed ranch has been under investigation since a vehicle accident in late September involving kids from the ranch. One 18-year-old died from his injuries in the crash.
State Police say this case is of the highest priority and that agents are aggressively investigating the allegations.
"We've been working closely with law enforcement on this investigation, so we've followed everything we need to go in and do our investigation," CYFD spokesman Henry Varela told KRQE News 13 in a phone interview Thursday.
Varela said Tierra Blanca is unlicensed due to a loophole in New Mexico state law for places classified as "ranches." CYFD hopes to push legislation to change that loophole, he added.
Kevin Fisher, a former resident of the ranch speaking at the news conference, said during his nearly two years at Tierra Blanca Ranch he never saw anyone abused.
"It's just hard to see something like this happen," Fisher said. "You know, I have been there. I have never been beaten my entire time there. I have never seen someone beaten."
The Albuquerque-based Pegasus Legal Services for Children has been calling for further investigation of Tierra Blanca Ranch since earlier this year. Representatives from the firm say the lawsuit is an attempt to "circumvent the child protective system."
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