A prominent North Georgia ranch for kids in crisis is facing three lawsuits, each raising issues about whether the facility has adequate safeguards to prevent youth-on-youth sexual abuse.
Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Mark Winne was in Flowery Branch Wednesday. He began investigating the facility last fall.
Some local parents claim their kids were sexually assaulted inside, and the lawsuits raise issues about whether the children’s home should have protected them.
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Eagle Ranch claims to be one of the Southeast’s largest residential children’s programs, a place for kids with mild to moderate emotional or behavioral problems to get help.
According to a statement from Eagle Ranch, they have provided support for more than 2,000 children and families in crisis for nearly 40 years. The facility says they strive to create a “Christ-centered” nurturing and structured home life in a peaceful and safe environment for families. They also offer education and counseling.
But parents from two families told Winne that the problems their kids face because of what happened to them at Eagle Ranch are worse than the problems they were facing when they got there.
“No other family should go through what my daughter and we are going through,” one mother said. We are not identifying the families because of the lawsuits. “I think the pit of my stomach swallowed me. It was like you hear about these stories and you see them happening to other people and you’re... I just never imagined the monster would be another child.”
A father Winne talked to said his son is worse off than he was before he started the program.
“It’s impacted the course of our lives and how it’s going to play out from here,” he said.
Eagle Ranch issued a statement about the lawsuits, saying,
“We strongly deny the claims made in each lawsuit and believe the claims are meritless. The Ranch intends to fully defend itself against these claims.”
Last year, Winne spoke with lawyers Mark Johnson and Nicole Bigman, who represent the families in two of the suits.
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“These cases involved the most sacred responsibility we have,” Johnson said. “These cases scream out for answers. The scream out for accountability.”
Bigman said these families should never have gone through what happened to them.
“These lawsuits are about families going through their worst nightmare,” Bigman said.
The many allegations in the lawsuits include that the Eagle Ranch staff was poorly-trained and ill-equipped to handle issues involving risks of harm to children and that the facility has repeatedly engaged in cover-ups of abuse.
Court filings from Eagle Ranch claim the facility’s training exceeds training required by license as a child care institution and attack the lawsuits’ lack of specifics, citing “speculation.”
In one case, the alleged victim is identified in the suit as “John Doe.”
The child’s mother said the program’s focus on church and God was what was appealing to her.
“We felt like we hit the jackpot with Eagle Ranch honestly in the beginning,” she said.
“I read some good reviews and thought maybe it would be a good fit,” Jane Doe’s mom said.
Attorneys said one night on Feb. 2021, John Doe awakened to his roommate sexually molesting him. He promptly reported it to Eagle Ranch workers, but a lawsuit says the room the child lived in had no cameras, and the “house parents” had no ability to monitor the behavior or actions of the kids in their bedrooms.
In a court filing by Eagle Ranch, the facility raised legal concerns about recording and indicated there is an interior room alarm system in the children’s bedrooms.
“We were confused and scared,” his dad said. “We feel like our son will be in recovery for the rest of our life.”
In another lawsuit, the victim is called “Jane Doe.”
“Another girl in the house decided to not only tell my daughter about sex, she decided to show and force some things upon her,” she said.
The suit said that weeks after the first sexual incident, another inappropriate sexual encounter occurred.
“She has a lot of added trauma, baggage that she’ll probably carry with her the rest of her life.”
No one from Eagle Ranch would talk to Winne on camera, but the Ranch was very cooperative about letting Channel 2 Action News cameras on the property to get video.
There are no allegations of sexual abuse involving the Eagle Ranch staff.
“God is the only way that we’re getting through,” one of the children’s mothers’ said. “Him holding us and comforting us.”
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