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ARKANSAS SHERIFFS' YOUTH RANCHES
The children's stories are heart-wrenching. One stepfather repeatedly came into a boy's bedroom after he was asleep and whipped him on the genitals. One prostitute pimped her two daughters. She then took them to a gas station, gave them $5, told them to find their dad, and abandoned them. "Our program is so small compared to the sin in the world," said intake counselor Suzi Williams.
That program is the Arkansas Sheriffs' Youth Ranches, the largest nondenominational residential childcare agency in the state. Children living at the Ranches often come from backgrounds of abuse and neglect and desperately need the healing possible in a healthy family-like environment.
Although the name of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Youth Ranches causes some to assume the kids are in trouble, Williams said the opposite is true: "The parents are the delinquents, not the kids." The Ranches are so named because in 1976, sheriffs saw the need to provide a home for abused, neglected, and homeless children. Sheriffs from Arkansas' 75 counties joined to form a privately funded "home, ranch, and training school for underprivileged boys." Today, a third of the board members are state sheriffs.
The residential program that began in a mobile home with three boys now has a 106-bed capacity at four campuses across the state. Since the first child moved in 30 years ago, more than 750 children have called one of the Ranches home. And the need for safe residential care continues to be high: In 2006, Arkansas had 5,831 substantiated cases of neglect, 2,069 cases of physical abuse, and 2,461 cases of sexual abuse.
The main Ranch campus, in northern Arkansas, features a chapel, interactive center, four cottages, a combined administrative and tutorial center, and a full commercial kitchen where each December staff members bake cinnamon rolls for a fundraiser. Boys and girls are housed separately, with two houseparents to a cottage.
Cheyenne Ingram and her husband Rick live with nine boys in Faith Hall, one of the two boys' cottages at the main campus. When Ingram first came to work as a house mom almost 25 years ago, she felt "scared to death." She was in her early 20s, with a toddler boy of her own, and "didn't feel ready to be the mom of eight." Rocking back in an old recliner, she recounts the challenges of repeatedly raising batches of boys: "I've had some kids who cussed me out, but I've learned not to take it personally. I try to remember that's all they've known-that 's how they survived, was to be tough."
Ingram sees many boys new to the ranch over-piling their plates and hoarding food in their rooms because they've learned not to expect a regular meal. Often, the kids don't want to be touched-but over time houseparents provide love and stability that break down a child's wariness: "The moment a child starts to feel safe, you start to see a change." That change leads to new opportunities for growth. Ingram speaks of Jim, who came to live at Faith Hall a year and a half ago after trouble at home led him to a gang in Little Rock. Jim's family never expected him to graduate from high school, and at times during math class, he didn't either. After spending every weekday in the Ranch's tutoring program, Jim graduated and now lives in the transitional cottage.
Zach, a small-boned 14-year-old who could pass for 11, also lives in Faith Hall and has no complaints: "I get fed better, I get a better bed, I get to have time with myself, and it's a lot of fun." After showing off his video games, he demonstrated his taffy-like flexibility by pulling his foot up to touch the back of his head. "If most people did this, their bones would snap," he said with a grin.
The boys of Faith Hall care for a dog, a goat, a fish, and pigeon-sized Bantam chickens. (Zach brought in his favorite, a red-beaked female named Pigit, who promptly pooped on the floor.) The children do indoor chores, feed the animals, tend their gardens, and bale hay. Before the first frost, the children will help harvest sorghum cane to make molasses. They will also soon begin halter-breaking foals. Everything produced, including the beef from the cattle they ate for lunch, benefits the children. Ranch superintendent David Ward wants to see the cattle herd grow from 50 to 100 head, with profits helping the kids. Only 5 percent of the Ranches' operational support comes from government sources.
One of the goals of the program is to reunite families. If that is not possible, the Ranch campuses function as a long-term home, with children living there an average of five years. During their stay at the Ranches, children receive group counseling and one to two hours of individual counseling a week.
Down the gravel road at the girls' cottage, all but one dinner dish has been cleared. Jennifer Grady is trying to coax her 3-year-old daughter to eat, but little McKenzie just pulls away from a tender piece of roast and reaches for a brownie. Jennifer and her husband Pacer became houseparents in June after praying about it for months. "It's the type of job where you make it your life," she said. "How do you really go off duty when you have children?"
The girls of Gratton Hall struggle with sharing three bathrooms and fight over the phone, but when one of them gets hurt by a boy, all jump to her defense. Brittany says being the oldest is hard because all the younger ones want to borrow clothes and hair items from her. But even though she's 17, Brittany still needed Jennifer when she woke up at three in the morning with a sore throat.
Brittany calls Jennifer "mom," hangs her arms around her neck, and takes a potato slice off her plate. She had lacked such an affectionate relationship with her biological mother. Brittany says her dad held the family together until he died of pancreatic cancer, then "it all fell apart." Her mom got a new boyfriend two months later and liked to blame Brittany for her problems.
One day, Brittany's mom told her to pack all her things, dropped her off at the Ranch, and drove away. Brittany didn't stop crying the whole night. Because of that lonely beginning, Brittany makes it a point to make every new rancher feel welcome. She likes the Ranch because "I can start all over and be who I want to be," or as Jennifer tells her, "be proud of who you are, baby."
The strong bond between Brittany and her house mom is the type of connection that the Ranch staff works to make with each child. The key connections aren't necessarily with houseparents: They could be with a ranch hand, a therapist, or CEO Mike Cumnock.
Cumnock, or "Mr. Mike" as he's called by the kids, believes this emphasis on bonding has prevented any suicides at the Ranches: "If a child truly believes you when you say you love them, they're not going to want to hurt themselves."
Many children also develop a close bond with certain horses-often the ugly, undesirable horses. One of those horses is Darla, a white snowcap Appaloosa with a two-foot-long scar on her shoulder. The scar is a remnant of an accident three and half years ago, when Darla spooked and ran into the edge of an open gate. As a result of her accident, Darla is one of the children's favorites.
"I've heard kids say when they see an animal on the farm in a vulnerable situation, they see a mirror of themselves," Ward said.