Former houseparents claim 9-year-old sexually abused 5-year-old at ranch for kids in crisis
Channel 2 Action News is digging further into claims that children were sexually abused at a North Georgia ranch for kids in crisis.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne spoke exclusively with former houseparents at Eagle Ranch who say their own children were abused and the facility wasn’t equipped to protect them.
Those workers have now filed lawsuits that allege youth-on-youth sex abuse and issues about safeguards.
Winne spoke to a couple who say they are former houseparents whose child was abused by an older child.
We are referring to the parents as SM, the mother, and JM, the father, to help protect the identity of the child involved.
“Why did you bring this lawsuit?” Winne asked SM.
[READ: 3 lawsuits claim children were sexually abused by other children at Ga. residential treatment home]
“For me, it was bringing darkness to light. As a parent, this has been the hardest thing that I’ve gone through with my child,” SM said.
“I want people to know exactly what’s happening at eagle ranch,” JM said.
The former houseparents told Winne they were initially attracted to an opportunity to work at the Eagle Ranch, which considers itself a Christ-centered residential facility in Flowery Branch for kids in crisis, because of their Christian faith and their experience as volunteers in another ministry.
“We really got to see just the brokenness and the hurt, and we wanted to be part of a ministry that was helping bring hope to children,” SM said.
But they say they experienced brokenness from the sexual abuse they say their then-5-year-old suffered at the hands of the 9-year-old son of other Eagle Ranch houseparents.
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“I was completely broken,” JM said.
Since the fall, Channel 2 Action News has been digging into three lawsuits against Eagle Ranch which all involve allegations of sexual abuse of a child by another youth, and allegations in each case, if true, suggest failures by Eagle Ranch set the scene for what happened.
A statement from Eagle Ranch says: “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.”
Chris Anulewicz represents SM And JM’s family in a lawsuit against the ranch.
“I think, primarily, what we’re seeking is for things to change. We want protections to be in place for all children that go to Eagle Ranch or really for all children that go to similar institutions,” Anulewicz said.
Among the many allegations in the suit involving SM and JM’s son is: “Eagle Ranch’s negligence in adequately training its staff and others and this created unreasonable risks of danger to both the staff kids and eagle ranch kids.”
Eagle Ranch denies those allegations.
“Did you receive any training about how to prevent or deal with sexual abuse?” Winne asked JM.
“No, we did not,” JM said.
Attorneys Mark Johnson and Nicole Bigman said they’ve brought two suits against Eagle Ranch, each on behalf of a different family who had a child who was a resident at Eagle Ranch sexually abused by another young resident, abuse that might have been prevented with proper safeguards.
“Eagle Ranch has denied the allegations in the respective lawsuits,” Johnson said.
“We went to eagle ranch initially hoping that they would be a partner in trying to help protect kids. Instead, what happened is they retaliated against my clients.” Anulewicz said.
In a court document, Eagle Ranch denied an allegation of retaliation that would be in direct violation of its own whistleblower policy.
SM said she reported the incident to the police and a forensic interviewer found their son credible.
But she and her husband said they eventually quit their jobs after a long series of events including being forced to meet with the 9-year-old’s parents in a reconciliation meeting, for which they were given an outline which they provided to Winne that included “each person will be expected to repent to the other.”
“We were told that we needed to repent of how we had hurt them in this process,” SM said.
“I had a conversation with the father where I said that his son molested mine and that he was, the son, was a predator and I was supposed to repent for that conversation,” JM said.
In a court filing, Eagle Ranch denies forcing them to discuss the incident with the other family at the facility.
“I don’t know how anybody goes through this without knowing Christ,” SM said. “God can use all of this for his glory and that’s been the thing that I’ve had to hold on to on the really dark days. That he can use this.”
He didn’t cause this, but he can use this to save others?” Winne asked SM.
“Yes, to save others,” SM said.
SM and JM said they’ve never gotten back the kid that their son was before this incident and recently his therapist said it is something he will have to continue to address for a very long time.
An Eagle Ranch statement suggests for nearly 40 years, it has provided support for more than 2,000 children and families in crisis.
“We strive to create a nurturing, structured home life in a peaceful and safe environment.”