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Adopted kids’ ranch in Montana denied license

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The dispute between the ranch, state regulators and the Russians is happening as a bilateral adoption agreement between the U.S. and Russia is going through the ratification process.

Yevgeny Uspensky, an official with the Russian consulate in Seattle, said Tuesday that his government has requested assistance from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer in arranging a visit to the ranch. Uspesnky said the government considers the children Russian citizens, even though they have been adopted by U.S. parents and have American citizenship, and they have the right to check on their situation.

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"I believe they have nothing to conceal. We wanted to meet the kids, just talk. I was not able to understand why access was denied," Uspensky said.

Sterkel and parents with children at the ranch question the Russians’ motives, calling it a political stunt timed with the ratification of the adoption agreement, and the parents say the attention could have the effect of damaging the reputation of a program that is necessary for children who are having troubles adapting to everyday life.

Sharon Houlihan, whose 10-year-old son Shawn is a student at the ranch, said she takes offense at the Russians’ implications that these children are being cast off by parents who don’t love them. Nothing could be further from the truth, Houlihan said.

"I am offended that the Russians who couldn’t take care of my children and had them in orphanage would think now that they have the right to come in here and look at what I’m doing and determine whether it’s appropriate or not," she said. "These kids come with a lot of things wrong. As a parent you accept the commitment and you do whatever you need to do."

Gigi Davidson, who enrolled her 23-year-old adopted son in the camp at age 18, said she does not put any stock in the state’s allegations against the ranch.

"Someone’s out to get them and I really don’t know why," Davidson said. "This is the only place I know that can help these kids."

Ranch officials have previously refused entry to state inspectors, according to documents from a 2009 lawsuit by the state agency’s Building Codes Bureau that has been combined with the licensing lawsuit.

That lawsuit includes an affidavit by state building inspector Rick Cockrell that says Cockrell, a deputy fire marshal, and electrical and plumbing inspectors tried to look at the ranch property in April 2009. Cockrell also asked a law enforcement official along because of what he believed was "threatening behavior" by ranch manager William Sutley.

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Sutley met them and denied them access to conduct their inspections, the first time Cockrell said that has ever happened to him. The ranch manager said that only two of 16 buildings on the property were being used by the program participants and the rest were being used as private residences, Cockrell said in the affidavit.

Sterkel repeated on Wednesday that only a couple of the buildings were being used by the children.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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