Nestled on 186 acres of forest on the border between Missouri and Arkansas sits Lives Under Construction, a residential treatment home for at-risk boys. Employing “Biblical counseling” and “Christian principles,” the ranch for troubled kids says it changes lives, “re-building broken homes and family relationships.”
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Lives Under Construction accepts boys between the ages of 7 and 21 for 18-month treatment programs. It’s also home to a “culture of pervasive sexual assault,” according to new lawsuits filed against the ranch by three former residents.
In their complaints, the three plaintiffs say younger boys at the treatment facility were routinely groped, molested and raped by older residents. The ranch’s management, however, did all it could to hide the problem, the men claim, going so far as to punish residents who spoke out about their mistreatment.
One employee was even fired, the lawsuits say, in direct retaliation for his choice to call a sexual abuse hotline after learning of one incident. Instead of protecting residents from abuse, the plaintiffs conclude, Lives Under Construction allowed degrading and illegal behavior to continue unchecked.
Lives Under Construction denies these allegations, according to the Springfield News-Leader. “Some people will be able to differentiate truth from fiction, and some can’t,” says Ken Ortman, the ranch’s 69-year-old founder. “We invite anybody who wants to know [the truth] to eat with us, visit with us.” A former dairy farmer working in South Dakota, Ortman says he felt called by God to set up a ranch for troubled boys thirty years ago.
Related Reading: Why Do People Find It Hard To Believe The Victims Of Sexual Assault?
This isn’t the first time Lives Under Construction has found itself in the public eye. Four years ago, two boys ran away from the Christian residential treatment ranch and stabbed the elderly owner’s of a nearby home to death. The teens were both sentenced to life imprisonment for the 2013 double murder, but documents made public in a subsequent wrongful death lawsuit against Lives Under Construction pose troubling questions about the ranch’s commitment to resident safety.
Employees hired by ranch ownership were often unqualified to work with teens, the suit claims, and suggestions from Missouri State regulatory officials were ignored.
While records from a juvenile court could, in theory, substantiate the claims of sexual assault cited in the lawsuits, those records are still sealed as of this writing. Reporters at the Springfield News-Leader have petitioned a judge to unseal them.
At least one rape has been confirmed through criminal court records. In 2009, a 19-year-old, Noel Nickel, was sent to Lives Under Construction, where he bunked with a 9-year-old boy. One night, Nickel raped his roommate, a crime for which he was subsequently convicted and sentenced to seven years in jail.
The young boy’s rape was an open secret at the ranch, according to court records and criminal filings obtained by the News-Leader. Several ranch residents told state investigators that they had seen Nickel and the young boy in bed together. Another witness claimed to have seen Nickel molest the boy on a different occasion, the News-Leader reports. And the victim, now 17-years-old, says he told staff members at the ranch about the assaults, but no one did anything.
Representatives for the ranch, including founder Ken Ortman, deny all knowledge of the rape or any subsequent molestation, but those claims are contradicted by statements made by Nickel, the perpetrator, who was interviewed by law enforcement officials in 2009. In a write-up of the interview, Nickels tells police officers that Lives Under Construction staff members called him “chomo,” short for “child molester.”
One employee, Gerald “Red” Pierce, told state investigators that he had witnessed a sexual incident between the 9-year-old and another resident, not Noel Nickel. Pierce told his supervisors about the event, but, despite being a mandatory reporter (a term Pierce didn’t understand), he never informed the authorities.
Missouri State law requires that Lives Under Construction employees, as mandatory reporters, to notify the officials with any suspicions about harmful acts against children. Questioned by the News-Leader in December 2017, Pierce appeared to deny the statements he made to an investigating official years before. “The word rape was never used the entire time I was on or near the ranch,” Pierce says.
Whether or not Pierce’s current view on the matter is accurate, a rape did occur at Lives Under Construction. And records made at the time by the Missouri Department of Social Services indicate that “staff members were aware of sexual contact between the two roommates but did not act,” the News-Leader writes.
Months would pass before the assault was finally reported to the State. And the victim, now considered an adult under Missouri law, is one of the plaintiffs in the recent sexual assault case against Lives Under Construction.
As of October 2017, 18 boys are living at the ranch. Attorneys say sexual assault, along with physical abuse, is a common problem at secluded boarding schools. Our own attorneys are representing two former students who say they were abused and neglected by staff members at Miracle Meadows Christian, a now-shuttered boarding school built on principles from the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Virginia.