by: Robert Jehle, Ozarks First
Another young boy has come forward claiming he was sexually assaulted by an older teen at Lives Under Construction, a boy’s ranch in Lampe, Missouri. He is the fifth child to sue the boys’ ranch. He claims he was punished after coming forward about the alleged abuse.
The founder of the religious residential facility strongly denies the claim.
Springfield-based attorney Randy Cowherd is no stranger to Lives Under Construction Boys Ranch (L.U.C.).
He’s represented all five boys who say they were assaulted at the ranch and, after two teens escaped the ranch and murdered a husband and wife back in 2013, he helped the couple’s surviving family win a large settlement against L.U.C..
Now, a fifth child has come forward with several new accusations against the ranch.
“We’re trying to prove our case that these assaults occurred and that the ranch knew or should have known of them,” Cowherd says. “His allegation is, is that he was sexually assaulted by an older person at the camp.”
The lawsuit identifies the boy as “John Doe V”.
According to the lawsuit, the boy’s stay at L.U.C. happened years ago when the boy was 12. John Doe V says he was sexually molested and physically assaulted by several older teenage residents.
Court documents also say, when he spoke up about the abuse, he was forced to perform a hundred hours of labor with the very people who molested him. Then, he says the older teens physically assaulted him for reporting them. Attorneys claim L.U.C. didn’t tell the state about this incident and didn’t provide proper psychiatric care for the boy.
The ranch’s founder, Ken Ortman, says the allegations made in the lawsuit are simply not true.
“Not everything Mr. Cowherd says is factual,” Ortman said to KOLR10. “We have never done that. That is never remotely close to what we would be doing. We would never put the bully and the victim together on that.”
Ortman started the boy’s ranch in 1982. Since then, boys ages 8-18 (most of them coming from adopted homes) from all over the country have been sent there for behavioral issues.
“Now we have 24 staff for 15 boys. I don’t know if you’ll find a ratio like that any place,” Ortman said.
An average day for a boy is split in half between school and work. Most staff members live on-site with them. Boys are typically at the ranch for 2 years.
“It’s a long term program. It takes a while to break the bad habit,” Ortman said.
During their stays at the ranch, boys learn 9 different trade skills like auto repair, horticulture, or animal husbandry.
“They work in the community and do jobs for other people and, when they leave, they’re head and shoulders above everybody else,” Ortmas said of his program. “We don’t get any state, federal, or county money at all. Everything that happens here is not at taxpayer expense. But when you can help kids that normally would have been in the system, and the system is costly, then it’s a win-win for the community as well as the family.”
We asked Ortman why he believes five different boys have now come forward, claiming they were assaulted.
“If a young man gets a call from an attorney who is promising a bunch of money in exchange for allegations, it’s pretty tempting for somebody to do that,” he said. “It’s not unusual that you would find out of hundreds of graduates that have been here that you would find a few that would be disgruntled.”
It’s unethical in the state of Missouri for a lawyer to solicit face to face services if the main motive is financial gain.
Ortman didn’t know all of the details of the new lawsuit at the time of this interview but he says if the boys were assaulted, they never told anyone while at the ranch. Therefore, he says, staff couldn’t do anything about it.
“We routinely ask the boys, ‘Has there been anything you need to report?’. So if there is ever a time when a boy who is younger, smaller, senses that they are being bullied in any way, that they are to tell staff, parents, anybody immediately so that we can take care of it. The case that you’re talking about his mother was living on the ranch. She was our nurse,” Ortman explained.
There is one licensed counselor that lives on the ranch and talks to the boys about how they’re doing.
Ortman says John Doe V may have told this counselor about his abuse, but because of health privacy laws, he can’t disclose the information.
That’s something the lawsuit takes issue with.
It claims L.U.C. was cited by the Department of Social Services for not reporting sexual abuse. In addition, the suit says Ortman has a degree in wildlife management, and he and his staff don’t have the proper training to be handling adolescent youth.
“Missouri has a statute that says that if these facilities are religious-based, they are exempt from licensing,” Cowherd, John Doe V’s lawyer, said. “They can only have oversight if these groups agree to it voluntarily. What it requires is someone to make a hotline call of abuse or neglect. That’s the one way the state could intervene and maybe pull children out of there.”
“I believe that we should be under every law and protocol to enforce the laws that anybody else doing this same kind of work is under. So we have not tried to hide from it. We have not tried to cover anything,” Ortman told KOLR10.
L.U.C. didn’t renew its state license in 2015, after disagreements with DSS about its biblical curriculum and principles. Ortman says if there’s a problem on the ranch, sometimes he’ll refer to the child’s parents about an incident. Other times he will make a hotline call, which he claims he’s done many times in the past.
“Every hotline that has ever been done on L.U.C. has been unsubstantiated for any neglect or abuse by L.U.C.
“Check with DSS on this. You probably won’t find another program that never in its history had even one substantiated claims,” Ortman told Jehle.
We checked into that statement with a sunshine request from the DSS.
But because hotline calls are confidential, we got limited information.
From 2009 to 2019 Lives Under Construction did have one substantiated report of neglect.
Great Circle Mental Health Services in Springfield also had one substantiated report of neglect in the same time period.
Good Samaritan Boys Ranch in Brighton had no “responsive information”.
Ortman’s philosophy on medications, while not a centerpiece of the lawsuit, is another detail making its way into the controversy.
When the boys arrive at L.U.C., they’re taken off all psychotropic drugs. Ortman believes they have negative side effects. Instead their given holistic methods like faith, counseling, and hard work.
“I believe God can and does change hearts,” he said. “And I can’t do that. So I need a higher power. If we tried every alternative that we knew, and none of them worked, I would use the meds.”
The lawsuit’s main conclusion says L.U.C. has created a culture of assault and failed to protect the boys.
Several of the previous John Doe lawsuits have already been settled, and offenders have served time.
“The first assault started in 2009,” Cowherd told our reporter. “And we still have an allegation of an assault all the way out in 2014 and 15. So certainly as we’ve alleged we see that as a pattern that is ongoing.”
But Ortman says there’s simply no cover-up. He says the boys have plenty of opportunities to reveal secrets with staff and even volunteers and businesses.
“We could not keep a secret if we tried,” he said. “Because there’s too many ways that we would get found out.”
Cowherd argues the ranch hasn’t made enough changes since those first lawsuits.
Over the years, Ortman says, he’s added security cameras and changed numerous staff policies. He also tells parents about the abuse allegations before they send their child to the ranch. Ortman showed hundreds of letters and emails he’s gotten from local businesses and organizations, thanking him for his work and telling how great the boys turn out.
Right now, the lawsuit is still working its way through court.