SALT LAKE CITY (CN) – A mother claims in court that “sadists and psychopaths” at Turn About Ranch, a residential treatment center in Escalante, subjected her teen-age daughter to “torture,” including hours of stress positions, threats to suffocate her, exposure to animal abuse and regular public humiliation.
Elizabeth Verney and her mother, Julia Gordon, sued Turn About Ranch and Aspen Education Group, both California corporations, in Federal Court.
Turn About “purport(s) to be a Utah licensed residential treatment center” in Escalante. It’s owned and operated by the Aspen Group, according to the complaint.
Verney, now 22, claims Turn About subjected her to “torture” in 2005, when she was 15.
The ranch billed itself as a place to treat “young people with low self-esteem, depression and mental health problems,” according to the complaint, and “boasted [of] daily private therapy sessions, horse riding and outdoor activities with all staff trained as childcare experts.”
Gordon, of London, England, claims the defendants charged her $310 a day to treat her daughter for depression and severe anxiety disorder.
But Verney says she spent 7 weeks as an “abject captive” and was “constantly frightened and fearing for her life.”
According to the 34-page complaint: “During her stay Elizabeth was subjected to sleep deprivation, denied food, and yet forced to eat and prepare meat, which was abhorrent to her as a vegetarian. The ranch threatened her with restraint and force-feeding with a tube if she did not comply. The ranch forced physical labor and excessive exercise in extreme temperatures. It forced her regularly to put her hands in a sink filled with bleach to wash dishes until they bled, leaving to this day scars on her knuckles.
“Staff’s verbal abuse was unrelenting, humiliating both in private and in group ‘denunciation meetings’ where she was made to list her faults and listen to her peers taking turns denigrating her and her faults, and what they disliked about her, not as therapy but out of relish.
“Staff regularly threatened Elizabeth with physical violence, including potential suffocation if she tried to run away. They told her daily that she was a bad person, and described her as ‘disgusting, stupid, manipulative, pathetic and bad.’ They screamed at her, punished her for crying and for having panic attacks that caused fearful hyperventilation.
“They forced her to maintain stress positions for many hours at time during the first few days at the ranch, not allowing her to rest her body against any structures, to stretch or to lie down, putting great pressure on her back, neck and joints, all of which was extremely painful. They forced her to sleep on a wooden slab without a pillow or mattress even though she already suffered from ongoing back pain from an injury that her parents had told the ranch about.
“She was often not allowed to wash for days at a time or change her dirty clothes. They forced her to sleep in clothes that had animal feces on them.
“Bullying and abuse between those in the program was not only overlooked but actively encouraged. When Elizabeth informed staff about a 13-year-old boy’s being bullied by older teens in his dorm room, a staff member said the boy deserved it and joined the ringleaders in taunting and humiliating her all the more, and then excluded the boy from group activities.”
Verney says she was also forced to attend church, “although she and her family are not Christian and found some of the teachings against her beliefs.”
The complaint continues: “In some ways the most harmful experience was the emotional abuse inflicted by her appointed ‘therapist’ of uncertain credentials, who criticized her, led a denunciation meeting against her, told her that she was a bad person and was ‘pretending’ rather than suffering from true anxiety or depression, thereby refusing to treat, validate, or even acknowledge the deterioration of her mental health at the Ranch. Notwithstanding being cast as a counselor and liaison between Elizabeth and her parents, she lied to Elizabeth’s family about Elizabeth’s welfare and physical and mental health, and lied about her parents’ communications to the Ranch about Elizabeth; and facilitated, enhanced, and concealed Elizabeth’s abuse so as to dissuade her family from making serious inquiry about Elizabeth’s welfare and, in order to extort further funding, claimed that Elizabeth needed to remain at the Ranch.
“Elizabeth saw that animals at the camp were seriously abused and neglected. She was told of animal torture witnessed by other teens, such as the burning of a live rat on a camp fire (apparently the creature was repeatedly tossed into the fire by a member of staff until it died). One staff member showed Elizabeth a knife he used to castrate farm animals without anesthetic, describing the animals’ screams, as he knew that she was an animal lover. Dogs were left for days without water in extreme
“The Ranch intercepted, read, and confiscated Elizabeth’s mail. Staff made her write false and glowing letters. Staff censored and manipulated all communication with her family. They lied to her about communications between the Ranch and her parents and vice versa. Staff told her that her parents were colluding with the Ranch to ‘punish’ her because she was a bad person, that they did not really love her, were angry with her, and were not sure whether they were ever going to come and get her.
“On one occasion Elizabeth had written to her parents telling them about an incident of mistreatment, the mention of which the Ranch always emphatically prohibited, and that she wanted to come home. The Ranch never sent the letter. Max, one of the Ranch directors, told Elizabeth that her parents had received the letter and not only did they think Elizabeth deserved the abuse but had called the Ranch saying that she had been ‘telling tales’ and should be punished for doing so. Her parents were told at this time that Elizabeth was so happy at the Ranch that she wanted to stay even longer in the program and they were encouraged to fund the extension of her time there.
“Elizabeth had self-harmed in the past and was told by staff it was manipulative and immoral and her therapist made her apologize publicly for it. Elizabeth was very shy and embarrassed about having self-harmed and found it publically portrayed as a gross sin rather than a recognized control mechanism. She was punished for crying, usually by being made to walk in circles or sit on a rock outside alone for hours at a time. Even if she cried silently or tried to conceal it by covering her face and then apologizing, she was laughed at, screamed at, and punished for being ‘manipulative’ or ‘weak.’ …
“By the time she left, she had come to believe that the things she had been told about her and that she negatively experienced at the Ranch, were the real reality, a sort of semi-Stockholm Syndrome. Until the moment they boarded the plane to the UK, Elizabeth thought that as a result of any mishap, mistake, or blunder she had made, she would be kidnapped and taken back to the Ranch.”
Verney’s mother says she “only became aware that something was seriously wrong when she and her husband traveled to Utah to visit Elizabeth, half way in to her 80-day initial stay at the ranch. They were shocked to find her terrified, subdued, and very disturbing in her behavior. Her hands were raw and continuously bleeding, she had lost weight and looked exhausted.”
Gordon says she and her husband “had asked to speak to Elizabeth many times, but were told by staff and the psychiatrist at the ranch that it would distress her and disturb her excellent progress of gaining self-esteem, and that she may, given her joyous progress, wish to stay even longer after completing the program.”
She adds: “No explanation was adequate to justify subjecting a vulnerable, frightened 15-year-old girl to the systematic breaking of her spirit and mental health unless she were in the hands of sadists and psychopaths, which she was. …
“Julia Gordon bitterly regretted sending Elizabeth to the ranch in Utah. The consequences of her stay there had a profound adverse effect upon her life and family, with which both mother and daughter are still struggling many years later.”
The plaintiffs seek the “enforced release of any and all minors enrolled or incarcerated in any and all of defendants’ facilities,” and special, general and punitive damages for slavery, involuntary servitude, conspiracy, fraudulent concealment and constitutional violations.
They are represented by Thomas Burton.