Lawsuit alleges years of child sex abuse at politically connected Arkansas treatment facility
Eight plaintiffs from Illinois, Oklahoma and Florida detail abuse over nearly 15 years
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A federal lawsuit filed Monday alleges repeated sexual and physical abuse of children at The Lord’s Ranch, a residential treatment facility in Northeast Arkansas that closed in 2016.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs — eight former residents who were reportedly abused as boys — said this is the first of several lawsuits they will file on behalf of the more than 30 clients.
The Lord’s Ranch opened in 1976 and closed in 2016 when owner Ted Suhl was convicted of bribing a state official to help increase Medicaid payments to his companies. Suhl only served two-and-half years of his seven-year prison sentence because former President Donald Trump granted him clemency in 2019 at the request of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins.
The 55-page complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas in Little Rock focuses on allegations of sexual abuse, including “innumberable incidents of fondling of genitals and oral rape,” by the camp’s director of social services, Emmett Presley.
Camp leadership, including Suhl, were aware the licensed counselor “habitually raped and sexually molested minor male residents,” the suit says.
Residents who reported the abuse faced threats and intimidation to keep them silent, and the “pattern of abuse went on unabated” for years as staff covered it up, attorney Josh Gillispie said during a virtual press conference Tuesday.
“Every single time that one of these victims reported that they were being literally raped by this man, nothing was done,” Gillispie said. “Not one staff member, not one member of the Suhl family ever once lifted a finger, did a single thing to stop the abuse and it always continued afterwards, sometimes for years.”
North Little Rock’s Gillispie Law Firm and Chicago-based Romanucci & Blandin, LLC, are representing eight plaintiffs from Illinois, Oklahoma and Florida who detail abuse over the course of nearly 15 years.
Attempts to reach Suhl and Presley or their representatives for comment on the suit weren’t returned on Tuesday.
The “systemic and widespread abuse” included premeditated sexual abuse and rape; extreme physical violence resulting in injuries like broken bones; and psychological manipulation, such as isolation closets and straitjackets, according to the complaint.
In a recorded statement shared during Tuesday’s press conference, an unnamed plaintiff said he recalls living “in a state of constant fear and subjection to the abuse,” and feeling “a great deal of shame and anger.”
“As a young boy, I was targeted by my pedophile psychiatrist based upon my history of sexual abuse experiences as a child and these experiences were used against me as a tool by him to sexually victimize me further,” he said.
The complaint includes several counts of wrongdoing, including negligent supervision and retention, sexual battery and Title IX violations. Additionally, because some residents were picked up from their home state and driven to the Lord’s Ranch by staff who likely knew they were going to be abused, the plaintiffs are suing under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers said they are bringing this suit forward now because of the Justice for Vulnerable Victims of Sexual Abuse Act. Passed in 2021, the state law allows adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, regardless of when the abuse occurred, to file a civil claim between Feb. 1, 2022, and Jan. 31, 2024.
Attorney Martin Gould said the legal team receives calls from survivors daily. Gould said he expects to start filing additional suits in the coming weeks and will continue filing suits up until the last moment.
Plaintiffs in Monday’s lawsuit are seeking punitive damages, which Gould said he hopes will deter similar abuse in the future.
“This case is important because a message has to be sent from Arkansas and to the rest of the country that this type of conduct cannot be tolerated and a punitive damages award would… serve as a deterrent to any other owners or operators of facilities like this that they cannot engage in this conduct and if they do, there’s going to be very serious consequences in the civil court system.”
The abuse plaintiffs said they experienced at the Lord’s Ranch is not an anomaly. For example, Kanakuk Kamps, one of the largest Christian summer camps in the country, was sued last year by a former camper who alleges leadership concealed their prior knowledge of a director’s sexual misconduct to persuade his family to sign a settlement and non-disclosure agreement.
The Branson-based camp is now suing its insurance company, claiming it threatened to deny coverage if information about the abuse was made public.
Ted Suhl’s parents, Bud and Shirley, started the Lord’s Ranch in 1976 as a counseling facility for children. It consisted of more than 1,100 acres in Warm Springs and accepted residents from 6 to 17 years old from around the country.
The facility was licensed by the Arkansas Department of Human Services as a residential childcare facility in 1987.
The complaint alleges Ted Suhl was able to “game the system for personal and financial gain through years of corruption, bribery, calculated political donations, legislative lobbying, and invoking religious doctrine and cause where it suited them.”
Suhl was appointed to the Arkansas Child Welfare Agency Review Board in 2000 and reappointed in 2004. The board was responsible for licensing child care facilities in Arkansas, including those owned by the Suhl family, enabling Suhl to “police himself and his criminal organization,” according to the complaint.
During this time, the state created a system that allowed residential treatment providers to hold oversight positions for their own industry. In 2007, the Arkansas Child Welfare board, of which Suhl was still a member, defeated a proposal by a state lawmaker to make the board independent of the facilities it regulated.
From 1996 to 2007, Suhl lobbied to keep Medicaid dollars flowing into his residential care facilities. From 2002 to 2008, the Lord’s Ranch Entities were paid about $95 million by the state in Medicaid funds.
In 2014, former DHS deputy director Steven Jones, pleaded guilty to charges of providing official assistance to Suhl in exchange for bribes concerning programs receiving federal funds. Jones said he took cash disguised as donations to a West Memphis church to make Suhl believe he was “on retainer,” according to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
While Jones said he never agreed to do anything Suhl requested, such as asking to increase the geographical radius from which one of his companies could receive referrals, he told Suhl he would “look into” the requests.
A jury convicted Suhl on counts of wire fraud and bribery in 2016. He was sentenced to seven years in federal prison and fined $200,000. A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis upheld the convictions and sentence in 2018.
Suhl’s sentence was commuted in 2019, a move supported by Huckabee, the former governor.
Huckabee appointed Suhl to the Arkansas Child Welfare Agency Review Board. When Huckabee was exploring a presidential run in 2006, Suhl gave Huckabee, his wife and daughter — current Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders — a private plane ride to a Republican Party event in North Carolina.
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