The Union, February 12, 1998
Boys Ranch Discipline Breaks Bones, etc.
Response: "It's obscene to say we are perfect."
By Kevin Miller, James Nash
State seeks boys ranch closure; Milhous officials say claims inaccurate, unfair.
Allegations that range from physical and sexual abuse of troubled juveniles to leaving an outbreak of scabies left untreated among a camp of 44 kids could force the closure of the Milhous Ranch and seven other Northern California homes for troubled youth, The Union learned from state documents.
But Milhous officials say most of the claims don't portray incidents accurately and that the state's allegations demonstrate officials don't even understand the system they administer.
"The allegations are written - it feels like - (in) an unfair slant," said Dick Milhous, executive administrator of Milhous Children's Services, characterizing the depiction of 35 violations as "tabloid-like."
"This was a total, complete, utter shock to us," he said.
Attorneys for the Department of Social Services, Community Care Licensing division, filed in November to revoke the license of Milhous Children's Services Inc., based north of Nevada City.
The Community Care Licensing Division of the Department of Social Services oversees private group and foster homes.
The violations constitute conduct that is "inimical to the health, morals, welfare or safety ... of children," the Department of Social Services alleges.
Department attorney Linda S. Waits said she has almost 100 witnesses to support the allegations. Some are former residents of Milhous facilities, but most are not, she said.
"We have sufficient evidence to prove each and every allegation," Waits said.
Over the last five years, three Milhous staff members were alleged to have sexually abused girls and boys at the facilities, according to the state complaint.
And in one case where the children were ultimately criminally prosecuted and convicted, two boys at one of Milhous' Sacramento facilities beat and sexually abused a developmentally disabled child, whom the state alleges should not have been kept in the same facility with the perpetrators.
Included in the state allegations are three incidents asserting that Milhous staff placed juveniles in physical restraints that broke bones.
Milhous said staff at the homes are properly trained, but added the stresses of dealing with violent, cursing kids can cause people to react in ways that go beyond proper. Staff misconduct is not tolerated, he said.
"It's obscene to say we are perfect," he said.
But Milhous said the complaint by the state is flawed as well, indicating a lack of understanding of the way juveniles are evaluated and placed in care facilities.
The state alleges Milhous accepted children rated as level 14 - the most seriously disturbed - at its facilities, which are rated only to handle level-8 kids. Milhous said that is impossible, because children rated as level 13 and 14 carry a certification which prohibits their placement in facilities not staffed to deal with them.
No scale is available to rate children not considered a 13 or 14, although the state said in 1989 it would design an objective evaluation scale to help juvenile facilities know what type of kids they are getting, Milhous noted. The scale never materialized, he said.
In other instances, the state complaint dramatizes incidents, Milhous said. A spring 1997 scabies outbreak was treated by both the Milhous Ranch nurse and a physician. When the state cited Milhous for the incident, Milhous appealed, and the citation was changed.
A letter from one Social Services supervisor to Milhous said the outbreak was handled immediately and properly, Milhous said.
Milhous provides residence, counseling, treatment and education for 80 troubled juveniles at eight facilities, including the Milhous Ranch on the San Juan Ridge and a residential home in Grass Valley.
The Milhous Treatment Ranch, started in 1968, treats 56 boys between the ages of 10 and 17. In the Sacramento area,Milhous operates four residences designed for children with the most serious behavior problems.
Most kids are sentenced to Milhous from courts in 30 state counties.
"We've handled some of the toughest kids for the longest time. Our reputation since 1968 is we take the toughest kids in the state," Dick Milhous said.
Social Services attorney Waits said the decision to seek revocation of Milhous' license did not stem from an individual incident, but "the totality of the number of problems."
Allegations in the suit are derived from the worst incidents from the last five years, but do not represent every complaint, Waits said.
But Milhous said only a handful of the 35 allegations are serious issues, and that those have been addressed.
"It's a real skewed report," Milhous said of the list of accusations. "I don't understand (Community Care) Licensing's view here - what's going on. We basically had an agreement it wouldn't end up this way."
A decision on closing the Milhous facilities is pending an administrative court trial, scheduled to begin in late April and continue into June.
Until a decision is made to revoke its license, Milhous remains open for business, said Francis Young, Northern California regional manager for Community Care Licensing.
"The department isn't in the business of putting people out of business," she said.
A team of social workers and state officials spent three days at the Milhous Ranch last week, reviewing staff interaction with kids, policies and procedures, and the general well-being of residents. Their study found no fundamental problems at the ranch.
Young said agency officials desire to find resolutions to problems at Milhous through reviews like last week's. A settlement to avoid closing the facilities down is possible, she said.
A settlement conference is scheduled before the trial date, Waits said.
Milhous said he is hopeful a resolution can be reached. But a majority of settlements include license revocation, Waits said.
TEAM TO REPORT FINDINGS FROM VISIT
Several social workers, a group-home administrator and a juvenile mental-health expert immersed themselves in daily life at the Milhous Ranch for three days and two nights last week in the wake of allegations against the home for troubled youth.
The special "tactical team" did not investigate claims by the state Department of Social Services of sexual and physical abuse by Milhous staff members against youth at the home. Instead, the experts were called in to review the breadth of operations at the facility north of Nevada City.
What they found was not the haven of staff abuse and neglect portrayed by the Department of Social Services in allegations against Milhous Children's Services.
"I was extremely impressed," said Sandra Boyd, child protective services supervisor for Nevada County and a member of the tactical team. "I was so impressed that when I came back (from Milhous), I had one of our social workers place a child there immediately."
The team interviewed staff members and children, attended meetings with clinicians and a psychiatrist, reviewed client files, and generally witnessed the interaction among Milhous staff and the client youth.
The team currently is drafting a list of recommendations for Milhous administrators to improve their program. Boyd said the team will not recommend a sweeping overhaul of Milhous operations.
"I don't think they will be really outrageous recommendations," she said. "They are more bland things. Overall, (Milhous was) a really well-run facility."
The team's leader, Tom Page, is compiling there commendations and will release them in written form. Until the team's report is released, members said they cannot comment on what changes they are advising. Page has not returned phone calls from The Union this week.
The tactical team's review is an unusual process that never has been tried in Nevada County.
Unlike the Department of Social Services - which has the power to revoke Milhous' license to operate - the tactical team's recommendations are not binding on the youth home.
"I really thought this was a good process," Boyd said. "I think that what we'll be recommending will result in a better service for the kids."
FAMILY HAS SPENT 30 YEARS WITH YOUTH
Closure of Milhous would terminate 30 years of a family's dedication to troubled youth.
Started as a foster home in the early 1950s, the efforts of Francis and Oliver Milhous had grown to a staff of 250 that tends to 80 emotionally disturbed kids at a time. It is one of California's largest juvenile-care facilities.
After operating a foster home for years, the Milhous family opened the Milhous Boys' Ranch, a 1,000-acre facility on the San Juan Ridge in 1968.
Today, the ranch is one of the state's few private juvenile centers not located in a residential area.
In Nevada County, Milhous also operates a residential home for six juveniles on Brunswick Pines Road.
The Milhous Treatment Center, programmed to deal with youth with extreme behavioral problems, is broken into five residences in the Sacramento-area.
Milhous facilities are 100 percent full at all times, executive administrator Dick Milhous said. More than 3,000 kids have come through Milhous programs, he added.