Home Emergency Hard labor and humiliating abuse alleged at Wyoming teen ranches

Hard labor and humiliating abuse alleged at Wyoming teen ranches

In 2015, a concerned grandmother sent a letter to several state agencies complaining that the ranch failed to help with her grandson’s wayward behavior. 

“It didn’t happen,” she wrote, according to a copy obtained from the Department of Family Services through an open records request. “It appears to be more a ranch using free child labor at the expense of the parents and grandparents.”

Scavuzzo said in court filings that boys were subjected to dangerous tasks and absurd discipline. In an interview, he said they had to pull dead cows out of ponds and use their mouths to siphon gasoline out of vehicles, and teens were forced to box each other as punishment. His mattress was once taken away because he refused to stick a pitchfork through a dying calf’s chest, he said.

At one point, while he was staying at Gerald Schneider’s Montana property, Scavuzzo said two staff members branded his arm in the shape of a cross with a hot piece of metal; he shared photos with NBC News of the bloody injury that he said were taken shortly afterward. 

He was told he needed to endure the branding to get into the ranch’s young adult program, according to the lawsuit, but he said he later found out he was the only one who was branded. Even after the wound oozed pus, staff members didn’t offer him medical treatment, he said. His parents pulled him out as soon as they saw his arm during a July 2012 visit, the civil complaint states. 

Even after the wound oozed pus, staff members didn’t offer him medical treatment, Scavuzzo saidJames Stukenberg for NBC News

“My parents just thought it was basically like a dude ranch where you’re taking care of horses and cows and fixing fences and just doing cowboy stuff,” Scavuzzo said. “They didn’t know about all the other crap that we’re doing for them.”

Triangle Cross Ranch denied Scavuzzo’s account of the cross branding in court documents.

Over the past decade, the Department of Family Services confirmed at least 28 violations at Triangle Cross Ranch. 

In 2015, state officials found Triangle Cross Ranch misrepresented its services online, censored mail and cut calls off with parents if the boys complained about their treatment, records show. The state also found that ranch staff misled the agency about its staffing levels during an investigation. 

State regulations allow the Department of Family Services to revoke a facility’s license if staff members make misleading or false statements to inspectors. However, the department told NBC News that its policy is to “resolve issues of noncompliance prior to recommending revocation” of a facility’s license. So inspectors instead told the ranch’s owners to create a corrective action plan explaining how they would avoid the violations in the future.

More problems emerged.

In late 2020, the state discovered Gerald Schneider made boys come into his house to help him off the toilet and to care for his wife, who has Alzheimer’s, records show. The state also found that staff members had told the boys not to speak with state officials during inspections, and that the boys had been punished for doing so in the past. Matt Schneider “presented with a threatening posture” when a state agent asked him about it, clenching his fist, according to investigation files.

Gerald, Matt and Mark Schneider declined to comment to NBC News.

In 2021, the department launched a multistep process for addressing repeat violations by youth facilities, which allows the state to take intermediate steps — such as limiting how many children can be housed at a facility, or shortening the length of a facility’s license — before forcing a facility to close. The department can also require repeat offenders to comply with a specific corrective action plan, rather than letting these facilities write their own plan.

The department wrote a corrective action plan for Triangle Cross Ranch in 2021 after finding staff members had possessed guns in cars with children, made children come into the owner’s house to do work for him, failed to complete employee background checks, didn’t feed the children well and forced boys to physically restrain other boys. The department noted that several of these incidents had occurred before, but officials decided not to suspend the ranch’s license, instead instructing the owners to follow state rules and provide documentation showing as much. The agency is monitoring to ensure Triangle Cross Ranch complies, officials said. 

“There are some programs that do struggle and have repeated issues of noncompliance, and we work with them,” said Nichole Anderson, a licensing supervisor in the department. “They implement a corrective action plan that we all agree to, and then work through that and then they can maintain clients.”

Department officials said in July that going forward, the agency will post youth facility licensing violations online so parents can do their own research. The department hasn’t launched the webpage yet because it hasn’t confirmed any violations recently, officials said. 

“It is the Department’s intent to provide opportunities for success for youth, families, and community partners, while maintaining accountability, transparency and most importantly, well-being of the children and families served,” a spokesman said in a statement.

‘It was like being abused again’

Over the past decade, former residents of Trinity Teen Solutions found one another online and shared their experiences. In spring 2014, one sent testimonials from several women alleging abuse at the ranch to Edwin Heimer, who is now a Department of Family Services field administrator, pleading for the state to investigate the program. 

The testimonials described being forced to repair fences on properties that belonged to friends of the Woodwards, according to copies of the emails shared by the woman who sent them. One woman said cows and colts had kicked her, and pigs bit and trampled her. The women described staff withholding food and sent photos of a girl wearing a shirt with “Do Not Trust Me” written on it with marker, and another wearing a backpack they said was full of rocks.

Some of the former residents’ concerns were familiar to the department. Wyoming licensing officials confirmed 15 years ago that Trinity Teen Solutions limited girls to only two five-minute showers a week, censored their communication to parents, made girls go to the bathroom in a bucket, and required children to perform construction and veterinary work — and said that was fine. (In 2011, the ranch told the state that the girls were no longer forced to use a bucket as a bathroom.)

Sophia Boutrous, left, and Kelsie VanMeveren lift lumber at Trinity Teen Solutions in 2011. According to former residents, girls at the ranch were given film cameras and allowed to take photos, but Trinity Teen Solutions had discretion over which images were given back to the girls.Courtesy Kelsie VanMeveren

The state found that other complaints, including certain allegations of humiliating punishments and overworking children, were unsubstantiated and determined that no action was needed. Inspection files often omit the steps the state took to investigate the allegations, which the department does not require inspectors to detail.

Heimer replied to the woman who sent testimonials in 2014 that he and others were reviewing the information, which he had forwarded to the department’s facility licensing division. The department said the emails sparked an investigation regarding youth safety at the ranch, culminating in a June 2014 report that declared there was “not enough evidence to support a rule violation.” In a box labeled “explanation for findings,” a department official wrote, “None.” 

In the months that followed, some former residents posted negative reviews about Trinity Teen Solutions on Google and Yelp, wrote blog posts and filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau.

In response, Trinity Teen Solutions sued three women in 2016 for defamation over online reviews, accusing them of damaging the ranch’s business. The ranch’s owners said in court that they had to spend time convincing prospective customers — parents — not to believe the online testimonials. 

The three women responded in court filings that their statements were true. But they said they lacked the money to make their case. They settled under an agreement that has not been made public, and many of their posts were removed. 

“It was like being abused again, outside of the facility,” said Mollie Jelinek, one of the women who was sued. She was sent to Trinity Teen Solutions from Florida at 15 in 2010, and stayed for two years. 

“When we were at the facility, they would put us ‘on silence,’ which was essentially revoking your ability to speak or even communicate nonverbally,” she said. “And it was the same type of bullying tactic being mirrored outside of the facility.”

After the defamation suit, former Trinity Teen Solutions residents met in a private Facebook group to discuss what else they could do to publicly share their experiences at the ranch. 

In early 2019, a few of them realized there is no statute of limitations for crimes in Wyoming, so they decided to file complaints with the Park County Sheriff’s Office alleging abuse at the ranch. Word spread, and soon more than a dozen women had called to report abuse. 

Image: Maggie Higgins, left, said she had to lift hay bales at the ranch. Faces have been obscured by NBC News.
Maggie Higgins, left, said she had to lift hay bales at the ranch. Faces have been obscured by NBC News.Courtesy Maggie Higgins

The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation was called in to help with the case. In late 2020, the state agency turned over the investigation to Skoric, the county prosecutor. Skoric said in an email this month that there is “much follow-up investigation to be done” before he can decide on filing charges, and that he believes attorneys representing the women in their civil suit against Trinity Teen Solutions have information relevant to the criminal probe. Neither Skoric nor the sheriff’s department has contacted the women’s lawyers, the lawyers say.

The state, the sheriff’s department and county prosecutor all declined to release copies of the women’s reports. Park County Sheriff Scott Steward said in an email that his office has “always taken these complaints seriously and not brushed them aside,” but due to “the ongoing investigation and the complexity of the case, I cannot provide further comment.”

Many of the women assumed the criminal investigation had petered out. Gozun, one of the women who filed a report, said she hasn’t heard from law enforcement in over a year.

“It really broke my heart,” Gozun said. “At first, I believed in our justice system, but experiencing being blown off when you’re a victim of abuse, and you have photos of proof and evidence — it’s really sad.”

‘I’m not alone’

Two years ago, activists who oppose abusive programs for troubled teens started posting TikTok videos about their experiences. 

In response to these videos, a sheriff’s department in Missouri began investigating Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, which led the state to remove children from the program. The owners were arrested last year on 100 felony charges. (They have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.)

The former Trinity Teen Solutions residents saw the activists’ success in Missouri and decided to post their own videos. Their TikTok posts have been viewed more than 98 million times

Among those viewers were officials at the Department of Family Services. 

In September 2020, child welfare and licensing officials circulated a link to one of the videos describing forced labor and injuries at Trinity Teen Solutions, according to emails obtained by NBC News. 

Lee Thurmond, who has inspected the facility at least 20 times over the past decade, noted that women had previously complained to state and local officials. Heimer, who’d received the testimonials in 2014, replied, “I had forgotten most of this … but I do recall now.” Anderson, the licensing supervisor, said the sheriff’s department had heard about the allegations in the videos “many times over the last 6 years or so … maybe even longer.”

They’re targeting parents thousands of miles away to send their kids there. That is the hallmark, in my mind, of the type of business that Congress really ought to be regulating.”

Brice Timmons, Attorney For former residents of the ranches

Several officials met on Sept. 29, 2020, to discuss the situation. Thurmond told colleagues that Trinity Teen Solutions had made many improvements over the past several years, and that it was difficult to investigate some of the women’s reports because of a lack of records from the facility, according to an internal email.

Another person who saw the TikTok videos was Brice Timmons, a Memphis, Tennessee-based lawyer. He was horrified by what the women described and left a supportive comment. 

“These women — many of whom had never met or hadn’t seen each other in many years, had no other relationship besides having survived this place — were almost all telling exactly the same story,” Timmons said.

The women were worried about Trinity Teen Solutions suing them, and asked Timmons for help. 

Timmons agreed, and then he went one step further: He began researching the labor that the former residents of Trinity Teen Solutions and Triangle Cross Ranch described, and he believed that it violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. He offered to sue on the former residents’ behalf.

“The coercion of people into labor for some kind of benefit is illegal,” Timmons said, “and that’s what these girls were all describing having happened to them.”

In November 2020, Timmons filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of former residents, including Gozun, Sherman and Scavuzzo, against Trinity Teen Solutions, Triangle Cross Ranch and the ranches’ owners, as well as against some local businesses, a church and the monastery accused of benefiting from forced labor. Thirty-six women submitted sworn declarations in August attesting that they had been abused and had not received the therapy they were promised.

Anna Gozun, left, and Andrew Scavuzzo, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Trinity Teen Solutions. Kelsie VanMeveren is one of 36 who filed affidavits.
Anna Gozun, left, and Andrew Scavuzzo, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Trinity Teen Solutions. Kelsie VanMeveren is one of 36 who filed affidavits.Will Crooks; James Stukenberg for NBC News

In court filings, lawyers for the ranches said that the manual labor was merely chores, part of a treatment program, and that the parents who paid for the teens to be there never expected their children would receive wages. The ranch owners tried to get the case thrown out, but a federal judge declined last November, stating that if the lawsuit’s allegations are true, they exceed what a parent would consent to and that the ranches’ owners “knew or should’ve known” that this sort of labor is illegal. 

The local businesses and religious entities have disputed in court filings that they had any knowledge of illegal activities, or had any arrangements with the ranches to obtain free labor. The litigation is ongoing, and the plaintiffs are seeking class action status.

Facilities for troubled teens in Indiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oregon, Ohio and Utah have also been accused of forcing youth to perform manual labor, either as part of the programming or as a punishment.

“These places all advertise all over the country,” Timmons said. “They’re targeting parents thousands of miles away to send their kids there. That is the hallmark, in my mind, of the type of business that Congress really ought to be regulating.”

Image: Kelsie VanMeveren and Andrew Scavuzzo, at home in Parker, Colo., with their baby. They met in 2020 after VanMeveren began speaking out about her time at Trinity Teen Solutions.
Kelsie VanMeveren and Andrew Scavuzzo, at home in Parker, Colo., with their baby. They met in 2020 after VanMeveren began speaking out about her time at Trinity Teen Solutions.James Stukenberg for NBC News

Unsilenced, a nonprofit activist group pushing for tougher oversight of the troubled teen industry, has spent months meeting with congressional lawmakers and staff, prodding them to introduce a bill that would guarantee basic rights for children in these programs, including a prohibition on forced manual labor. No legislation has been introduced. 

Gozun is now married, with three children, living in South Carolina and working on a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She also volunteers for Unsilenced, driven not just by her own experience but also the stories she’s heard from people who have attended other troubled teen programs.

“There are thousands upon thousands of children that have gone through similar abuses,” Gozun said. “Finding out that there are many others that have experienced something very similar to me and are still struggling with it to this day as adults — it was nice to know that I’m not alone, but it’s pretty messed up.”

Image: Anna Gozun at home with her family in Greer, S.C., in July 2022.
Anna Gozun at home with her family in Greer, S.C., in July 2022. Will Crooks for NBC News

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