An Aug. 11, 2019, media release from Riverhead Town police featured a familiar boilerplate: A resident of Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch had been reported missing. The release included a description of the boy and a request for information from the public on his whereabouts.
At the time, the teen had already been missing for two months.
“No foul play is suspected,” the release noted, echoing the language of nearly every similar statement issued when a teen goes missing from the ranch.
The whereabouts of 16-year-old Henry Hernandez remained a mystery for nearly two years, until Suffolk County police matched his DNA to skeletal remains found in a Centereach backyard in March 2020. Police charged 19-year-old John Mann IV with Henry’s murder.
His death, which investigators believe likely occurred around June 2, 2019, came quickly after his absence from the ranch was first reported to Riverhead police.
The murder shed a new spotlight on the frequency of runaways at the ranch, where Riverhead police respond on average more than once a week, according to statistics provided by police.
Since 1980, the ranch, located on an 86-acre campus on Middle Road in Riverhead, has been aiming to transform the lives of troubled young men through Christian values and life skills, giving them a “second chance.”
But those young men often opt to leave the campus without permission, setting in motion a familiar chain of events with police seeking the public’s help to track them down. Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said the department responded to the ranch 81 times during 2021. Halfway through the current year, those numbers are on pace to increase.
One young man, 16-year-old Walter Alvarado-Cruz, reportedly left the ranch March 11. He was spotted one day later in Huntington, but has not yet been formally located.
While teens running away from residential programs is not uncommon, as one former resident of the Timothy Hill Ranch said, leaving can be “as simple as walking out the door.”
Residential runaways are reported in communities across the country. In the vast majority of cases, they safely return to their facilities.
In rare cases, such as with Henry, or Timmy Montoya-Kloepfel, their escapes can be fatal. Timmy, 12, was fatally struck by a vehicle after leaving a youth treatment center in Denver last year.
A 2018 study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago describes youth runaways from residential facilities as “relatively common,” with a frequency ranging anywhere from 23% to 71%. The study points out that this wide range may be underestimated given that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does not require states to report the number of youth who run away at any point, as it is not a core outcome measure of a state’s child welfare system.
At least 28 individuals have been reported missing from Timothy Hill since Henry went missing, and more than 40 missing persons media releases have been issued.
“The number of times that we’re up there is concerning,” Chief Hegermiller said.
Thaddaeus Hill, Timothy Hill’s executive director, said youth will sometimes “step out” because they are feeling hopeless, have an “I don’t care” attitude or are trying to reconnect with their families or neighborhoods. Since many ranch residents are from western Long Island — outside Riverhead police’s jurisdiction — locating them can be difficult, but Mr. Hill said many are returned by their families or come back on their own.
Chief Hegermiller agreed that many of the missing teens are found in a “relatively short period,” often outside Riverhead, but added that any juvenile who is missing for a length of time is concerning, such as Walter, who has now been missing for three months.
Although Mr. Hill said Timothy Hill’s staff are on duty 24/7, every day of the year, the boys can seemingly find gaps where they can interact together away from an adult’s eye. In some instances, boys have even posted public videos on social media.
One former resident posted a video showing boys running around campus grounds at night in the snow, slapping each other in their sleep and doing the Space Monkey Challenge, or Choking Game.
One specific video posted in 2020 shows a young man running outside in the snow at night wearing only a T-shirt and shorts with no shoes. From behind the camera, another young man says, “Run all the way to admin and back,” while the others laugh. “Admin” is a reference to the administration building where staff members would be.
Since ranch residents can earn phone privileges depending on their length of stay, the former resident who spoke to the News-Review about his experience there asked not to be identified and said sometimes the boys would simply get an Uber to pick them up. Others would save up some money and hop trains.
For nearly as long as the ranch has operated in Riverhead, issues related to supervision have hovered. Three active lawsuits against Timothy Hill all state that during “lights out” in the 1980s and ‘90s, there was virtually no supervision of ranch residents. The lawsuits were filed in 2019 under New York State’s Child Victims Act, which temporarily allowed individuals to pursue past cases of sexual abuse.
John Gubitosi’s lawsuit, the most recently filed of the three, states that Mr. Gubitosi attempted to run away multiple times during a two-month stay at Timothy Hill in 1994, when he was 15. He eventually landed at his grandmother’s house in December of that year and refused to return.
In 2014, a 17-year-old from Timothy Hill was released on a $2,500 bond after being arrested for committing a felony sex act on another young male at the facility. The defense lawyer suggested his client, Seth Wassenaar, be released into the custody of a ranch employee after his bail had been posted, but Judge Allen Smith did not believe that a staff member could keep Seth away from his alleged victim.
“That noise you hear in the background is my bulls— detector going off,” the judge said during the case.
And on Oct. 1, 2019 — shortly after the first of the three lawsuits was filed — Acting Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho ruled that eight of the young men he had placed at Timothy Hill Ranch would be no longer mandated to stay there after, “certain allegations that have been made known to the court very recently,” according to a court transcript. Any of the young men who chose to leave, he said, would be placed in another facility.
The anonymous former resident said when he was at the ranch in 2020 and 2021, staff members were supposed to be with the boys everywhere they went. They performed bed checks at night to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, but he couldn’t recall how often rounds were made.
“There definitely are some measures against [running away], but they can only go so far,” he said.
“The first time I came here, I went AWOL every day. I went to 7-Eleven,” one of the residents, Sam, said in a testimonial video on Timothy Hill’s website and YouTube channel.
Sam has been reported missing on more than one occasion, most recently on June 5 of this year. In his video, “Sam’s 2nd Chance,” he explains his difficult childhood, which fits the profile of many Timothy Hill residents: abused, neglected and fatherless. After being kicked out of multiple group homes and living in a waterproof tent for some time, Sam ran into some trouble and was sent to Timothy Hill, one of the nicest facilities he said he’s attended.
“It’s not like it’s a hard program, it’s just annoying,” Sam said in the video. “Before I came here, I didn’t really care about doing good or any of that, but then I had a change of heart.”
According to the former resident who spoke to the News-Review, many of the boys ran away because they “didn’t want to do better for themselves.” Despite saying that Timothy Hill is “one of the best places you can go in terms of getting yourself together,” he admitted that he once tried to leave himself.
“They all drill the same thing into your head, and honestly I’ve had enough of a residential [program] trying to force me into doing something,” the resident said. “There wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the program or the staff.”
Like Sam, the resident grew up with absentee parents, was kicked out of foster homes and lived in multiple residential programs. “I was a broken child,” he said.
By the time he arrived at Timothy Hill, however, he felt that he’d made the positive changes he needed to in his life, all of which he credits to Linden Hill High School in Hawthorne, N.Y. He shared some of Sam’s sentiments about Timothy Hill, saying the program was not difficult, but he felt he no longer needed the structure some of the other boys lacked.
When the resident turned 18, he signed himself out of the ranch. Since then, he’s found a stable job and is in the process of opening a bank account and finding a place to live. “Personally, I didn’t need them trying to force me into something that I know I could do if I was in the real world,” he said.
He described the daily routine at the ranch. The boys are awakened at 6 a.m. for a workout followed by a meal and shower. School-age residents are enrolled in the Riverhead Central School District, as Timothy Hill is not an operating school; if they don’t attend school, the residents work around the ranch. School or work ends around 3 p.m. and then various groups are held, such as anger management or sex education. If groups aren’t held, the boys have free time. Dinner is from 5 to 7 p.m.
In addition to providing vocational skills and counseling, residents are assisted in obtaining documents such as Social Security cards or birth certificates and helped with learner’s permits or driver’s licenses.
“They feed you … give you all the essentials you need,” the resident said. “They’ll give you clothes, hygiene products, whatever.”
Breakdowns in the system
Because Timothy Hill Ranch is not a lockup facility, residents cannot be physically stopped if they attempt to leave. If a resident under 18 has been missing for over an hour, the ranch is obligated to notify the police department and file a missing person report, and then report that to the county and state.
“Are there times that kids step off this campus? Absolutely,” Mr. Hill said. “We’re not a lockup facility, and generally that’s not the kid that we’re supposed to be taking.”
Mr. Hill said that residents’ needs are constantly being reevaluated, and if the same individual has multiple reports of running away, their placement at Timothy Hill may be reviewed.
“They might need some other support and services, but those support services are not available,” Mr. Hill said. “Agencies like us are continuing to hold down, hold the line so to speak, on those young people until potentially they have to be removed to a higher level of care.”
However, that process is not one that can be completed overnight, as Timothy Hill must work with the county and state to make those determinations. In the meantime, Mr. Hill said that the ranch has “minimal support” from the systems in place.
“The hospitalization or the hospital’s psychiatric services that are, on paper, a support to agencies like us, I would say get an F in my opinion,” he said. “It’s commentary for the lack of services the kids in this county are getting as it relates to that, and that’s the biggest breakdown in the system.”
At Timothy Hill Ranch, the average resident stays between nine and 12 months and 80% are reunited with their families, according to Mr. Hill. The ranch currently has about 35 residents, but has had up to 60 in the past.
Residents who are over 18 can leave the program if they sign themselves out, but minors cannot if they have been mandated to attend by a family court judge.
“A lot of them kids don’t want to do better for themselves,” the former resident said. “They make it hard on the staff … not the other way around.” Even though residential programs can experience high rates of staff turnover, Mr. Hill says the average tenure of a Timothy Hill employee is about nine years.
The Office of Children and Family Services said in a statement that “the facility’s administration has been cooperative with the state’s oversight efforts and has developed a program improvement plan to enhance programming and campus safety.” They are notified when a youth has been named a missing person and continue to actively monitor the ranch through site visits, case record reviews and assessments of programming and treatment.
“These kids are dealing with a whole range of emotions,” Mr. Hill said. “They’re here to work through that in a healthy way and develop some coping skills, develop some social skills, develop some hope that life can be different.”