Idaho Youth Ranch in trouble and failing to help children, say former employees

The Idaho Youth Ranch’s store location on W. Main Street in Downtown Boise.
The Idaho Youth Ranch’s store location on W. Main Street in Downtown Boise.

When her husband said he wanted to work for the Idaho Youth Ranch, the Boise woman was apprehensive. It didn’t have a good reputation among nonprofits, she said.

Her husband followed his heart anyway and took a job there in 2016 – getting an up-close look at what the couple and many former employees say has become a dysfunctional business and has lost touch in recent years with its mission to help at-risk children and teens.

“As a community member, I had no idea they served such few kids in residential treatment, for the amount of fundraising they take from the community,” the woman told the Statesman in an interview. Her husband no longer works for the nonprofit.

The couple adopted a girl in 2017 who had lived for a time in a Youth Ranch facility.

“We have spent numerous counseling sessions, missed time from work, missed time from school and yes, money, to undo the trauma caused by the unprofessional and uneducated staff at [the Youth Ranch facility],” the woman would later write to Youth Ranch administration. “In 21 days, she left worse than when she arrived.”

The Statesman agreed not to use the couple’s names in order to protect their adopted daughter’s identity.

Interviews and documents reviewed by the Statesman suggest that the Idaho Youth Ranch – a revered, 65-year-old organization with popular thrift stores around the state – is struggling to serve the mental health needs of local at-risk youths and their families. It has become more like a thrift-store chain than a social-service organization, critics say.

But a new, temporary CEO says the organization is trying to right its course.

“This mission is too important – the work we do – the need is too great for us to falter here,” said Jason Fry, the interim CEO, who formerly ran the Wood River YMCA in Ketchum. “The Youth Ranch to be taken out of the picture to help Idaho’s kids would be a tragedy for the state for hundreds of kids and families around here. … That’s at the forefront of our mind.”

The Idaho Youth Ranch operated 27 retail stores and outlets around the state as of May 2018, while its residential treatment centers can treat no more than 26 children and teens. (According to state licensing records, the organization’s Hays House in Boise can take up to 20 children and teens, including runaways and homeless youth, for short-term stays. The “ranch” in Middleton is a long-term residential treatment center for up to six youths, according to state licensing records; the Youth Ranch opened it to replace its larger, more remote ranch in Rupert. The organization is putting an intense focus at the Middleton center on equine therapy, which centers on interaction with horses.)

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The Idaho Youth Ranch Hays House, a shelter for runaway and at-risk youths in Boise. Darin Oswald

And former employees say that as the organization has faltered, it has continued to portray itself to donors and the public as providing more services to kids and their families than it actually does. In addition, these employees say they have raised concerns for years about mismanagement, understaffing and turnover, top-heavy administration, and about the safety of children in the Youth Ranch’s care.

The Youth Ranch has seen high turnover among its licensed mental health providers and other therapy staff. Several employees told the Statesman that they or their co-workers were fired after speaking up about problems. One former manager estimated that 50 to 60 employees left in a year and a half’s time, including a therapy team of 12 that dwindled to two. Due to hemorrhaging those workers, the Youth Ranch has lost its ability to give adequate care to children and their families, according to people who worked there over the past decade.

“Our daughter, when she discharged [about two years ago], she and her family should’ve received outpatient resources, but they can’t even keep their clinicians staffed to offer those resources,” said the Boise woman whose husband worked for the Youth Ranch. Those resources would have “helped reunify” the girl with her family, but instead she had to go into foster care, the woman said.

However, even former employees with a laundry list of criticisms say the nonprofit has a valuable role to play that no other organization can replicate. They believe it should be reformed, not disbanded. And they hope changes will be made to retain workers and to reignite the organization’s ability to help Idaho’s at-risk youth and their families.

Fry in charge of an overhaul

Fry was hired last year to make changes to the organization, he said. His contract to do that is slated to end in about eight months.

He was tasked with changing some of the Youth Ranch’s business practices to make it more sustainable, after it ran deficits the past four or five years, he said. For example, looking at where they could trim and reorganize led to the decision to close down seven stores this year, he said.

He also is charged with changing the culture, getting the board more involved and hands-on, getting the community to see the Youth Ranch for its charitable mission as opposed to its thrift stores, improving its fundraising, and looking critically at how the nonprofit functions from top executives down to the single stores.

Basically, Fry is in charge of an overhaul.

Last month, after a group of former employees aired their concerns to the new CEO and told him the Statesman was investigating, the Youth Ranch hired two local attorneys to conduct a review of the complaints.

“It seems like it’s a difficult atmosphere to work in and not as supportive an environment” as it should be, Fry told the Statesman. “We’ve already made some personnel shifts … to be able to address some of those concerns.”

One personnel shift was to put a clinical director, who is the focus of several former employees’ complaints, on administrative leave. Another longtime employee was moved into the director role, overseeing two newly created management positions.

The employees believe the response was motivated at least partly by the possibility of media scrutiny; a year ago, they met with another administrator to talk about their concerns, and nothing happened, they said.

Fry said the organization currently employs eight therapists and has budgeted to add two equine therapists to that in fiscal year 2019. Two program managers also have been tasked with handling therapy caseloads, he said.

Fry said that in the year ending June 30, the Youth Ranch will have given 945 individual therapy sessions. By the same time next year, he said, the Youth Ranch plans to have provided 6,376 individual therapy sessions, or nearly six times as much of that core mental health service.

Several people who have worked for the Idaho Youth Ranch in recent years said they do not believe the organization is keeping its at-risk children safe while they’re in its care.

The organization in its internal records has logged instances of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual activity between minors who lived at the Youth Ranch’s centers. Police have been called at least once to the Youth Ranch’s new facility in Middleton to respond to a sexual assault report.

“One practice I know we’re addressing immediately, because we just talked about it last week, is doubling up on staff in overnight shifts in residential programs,” Fry said, when asked about residents’ safety. “It’s been a cost control for many years, but it’s something I think we need to look at to ensure the safety of the kids, but also the safety of staff who are there.

“This is a very difficult environment. These are teenagers who have traumatic experiences and backgrounds.”

Where does the money go?

The organization made about $23 million and spent $24 million in fiscal year 2017, according to its financial statements. So where did the money go, if not to staffing?

The Youth Ranch’s thrift stores accounted for the vast majority of its income and spending in the 2017 fiscal year. The shops made a profit of about $767,000 from $17 million in sales, according to the nonprofit.

About 15 percent of the Youth Ranch’s total budget went to its charitable programs. The nonprofit spent $2 million on residential programs for at-risk youth, $1.4 million on “community services” and about $112,000 on workforce development.

None of the people interviewed by the Statesman cited low pay as the reason for high turnover among the Youth Ranch’s clinical workers. What they did cite was understaffing.

Cyd Kirkham was hired in April 2017 to work as a therapist at the Middleton ranch.

“I was there for two weeks by the time the therapists at Hays House left,” she said.

By January, she was the only therapist for all the programs in the Boise area, she said. She complained of being spread too thin, working 50 to 60 hours a week, and being unable to meet the needs of all the children and families who needed services. She remembers being called into work with the flu, despite having a doctor’s note.

Kirkham was fired in mid-February.

“All I did, basically, was paperwork and emergencies – that was all I could do,” she said. “At the ranch, it was a fight and a struggle to get [therapy] to happen at the level we were saying it was happening, but it did … for the most part.”

But at Hays House, where more than a dozen children and teens could be working through crises and trauma at any given time, Kirkham said she doesn’t believe anyone was providing consistent therapy. “They ran Hays, pretty much the entire time I worked there, with one or less than one therapist that were dedicated to Hays,” she said.

And for at least a month of Kirkham’s tenure, the organization was providing no therapy services to children and families outside of residential centers, she said.

How many are helped?

Kirkham and several other former employees say they question the truth of the Youth Ranch’s claims in its 2017 annual report that it provided a total of 4,300 hours of therapy.

Jeni Williams, whose job in the past two years was to keep in touch with Youth Ranch alumni, says those numbers in some cases included instances in which a child or parent called in looking for services and was referred somewhere else for care or placed on a waiting list. (Williams also raised concerns about how the organization was being managed, and how it was using personal stories in fundraising efforts.)

Fry said he stood behind the 2017 numbers. In the past three years, he said, the organization would tally every time a person received help, such as “four” if a child lived at Hays House, received individual therapy and equine therapy, and worked in the job program. Now, though, it counts only the person, regardless of the number of programs they use.

Kirkham, the former therapist who for a time was the only one on staff, was baffled when she saw the numbers being reported.

“We’re supposed to be offering individual therapy, especially to alumni and stuff, and that wasn’t really happening,” Kirkham said.

The organization was so short-staffed with therapists that, at some points, its clinical director filled in as an on-call therapist. The director was not a licensed mental health provider in Idaho.

“We have learned that under Idaho’s law, at least, there is an exemption (for private nonprofit organizations) around licensing requirements, so we believe everything that was under his purview was in compliance with state law,” Fry said. “We don’t believe he’s actually done any clinical treatment or work. … Even if he had, it appears he’d be protected under this provision of state law.”

Kirkham says she “talked repeatedly about the lack of services” and management problems, but was blown off.

The Youth Ranch hired another therapist and fired Kirkham on the last day of that new therapist’s training, she said.

‘It started to change’

It wasn’t always this way, according to a longtime Youth Ranch director.

Jim Stockberger was an at-risk youth and shelter-care administrator for 25 years, spending the last five of those at the Youth Ranch’s former facility in Rupert. He was fired about five years ago, as the Rupert program was on its way to being shuttered and moved to Middleton.

The Rupert ranch served up to 20 children at a time back then. The ranch was fully staffed when he worked there, with 20 staff members and two full-time mental health clinicians dedicated to the facility. They had a good “aftercare” program to help the youths transition back into their families and communities, with therapists seeing them weekly before and after they left the ranch, he said.

“It started to change right before I was fired, and I wasn’t thrilled about the changes,” he said. “It was all financial. They wanted to start cutting some of the programs, and I didn’t want them to.”

Stockberger said that losing his job at the Youth Ranch was so “devastating” that he changed careers and now works for an occupational health and safety company.

Meanwhile, the Boise woman whose husband also worked for the Youth Ranch said she thinks the organization needs systemic change.

“I think the biggest issue is the culture,” she said. “I think they’ve had people in leadership too long.”

Editor’s note: The net income from thrift stores has been corrected. The original report cited figures from federal tax returns, which the Youth Ranch says did not include income such as donations from customers choosing to “round up” their purchases to the next dollar.

Watchdog reporter Audrey Dutton joined the Statesman in 2011. Before that, she covered finance policy in Washington, D.C., during the financial crisis. She also worked as a reporter in Maryland, Minneapolis and New York. Audrey hails from Twin Falls.