SENTINEL BUTTE - When clinical psychologist Dr. Mel Rose first came to Home on the Range therapeutic ranch for an interview for its open executive director position, she said she was impressed by the longevity of the program’s staff.
Rose said this spoke of the dedication to the ranch, as well as showed a “continuity of care” toward children that’s different from other programs with high rates of staff turnover.
Plus, Rose said, everyone has been very welcoming since she began at the job in August.
“I couldn’t be in a lovelier setting, honestly,” she said.
Rose’s arrival is just one of a few new happenings the residential therapeutic ranch for children can celebrate.
Home on the Range is in the process of installing a Trauma Recovery Unit, a revolutionary concept that can be used to help especially troubled youth.
Once completed in March, Rose said the ranch will become the only residential treatment program with that level of care in the state to have such an asset.
The ranch is a treatment center overseen by the Catholic Diocese of Bismarck for children between the ages of 12 and 18 who have had troubled pasts. The average stay for children is eight months.
Mike Gooch, the program’s clinical director, said most of the children they receive are from North Dakota, but add that they are seeing significant numbers of refugee children that carry trauma from war-torn countries.
“One kid was even afraid of dogs because he had seen dogs eating corpses,” he said.
Gooch said that this isn’t the norm, but it has come about relatively recently.
He said the program is also recognizing more levels of trauma in children than before.
A tool they use to gauge this is counting adverse childhood experiences in an individual, which can be factors such as living in an abusive household.
Having just four of these factors is considered high, Gooch said, but the program has been receiving children that rate as high as eight, nine and 10.
He said the directors are trying to integrate trauma-informed care in all the staff to meet this challenge.
“It’s not an easy process,” Gooch said. “It’s a very stressful, ongoing, every-minute and every-day process of changing the way you look at things.”
Rose said the program is working on a trauma recovery unit, where children with a greater need for attention can get acute care.
Gooch explained that he and his colleagues got the idea of transforming one of the dorm areas into a specialized unit after they received students that the program did not have the resources to help.
“If we could just back up and provide some intensive kind of separate, specialized services to these kids, we might be able to be of help to these kids and make these kids have a better chance of being successful once they leave here,” Gooch said.
He said the unit will be a place where such children will be separated from distractions, and will enable them to focus on the necessary things.
“I think it’s really going to set us apart and enable us to help some kids that, historically, we have not been able to help at this level,” Gooch said.
Rose explained that since many of the children that come to the ranch have never developed life skills that others their age are expected to have, she and her staff don’t call their work rehabilitation since that implies that the children have skills that they aren’t using.
Rather, she said, they are habilitating the children.
“We are teaching them skills that they never managed to acquire as a result of the environment in which they were raised,” Rose said.
Rose said she came to the job after caring for her father in North Carolina. Before that, however, she served in directorial positions for residential treatment programs and outpatient mental health clinics in Utah and California, respectively.
Jeff Bertelsen, the program’s residential director, said chores for the children include working with the cattle on the ranch, such as weighing and noting when cows have calves. They also pick up trash, keep the dormitories clean and mow during the summer.
The children also help out at fundraising events, he said, such as the Champions Ride Saddle Bronc Match, which will be in its 60th year when the event is held Aug. 6.
Gooch said the ideal path for resident children after the ranch is to return to their homes, but that’s not always possible for various reasons. He said many enter the foster care system or go to live with relatives.
“The ultimate goal is to get them back to their home community,” he said.
Gooch said there are those who move on from the ranch and then choose to return. There have also been cases of residents sabotaging their regular evaluations in order to stay, he said.
Rose said getting funding, like with many other nonprofits, is “always a bit of an uphill battle.”
She said the ranch is supported by the generosity of others, which can be unpredictable. The best they can do, she said, is keep presenting themselves to the public.
“Hopefully we do a good enough job making people aware of the important work that we’re doing and get them passionate about Home on the Range,” Rose said.