Boys Ranch Programs

Struggling teens or troubled teens may benefit from boys ranch programs, as an alternative to boarding school. This article offers the pros and cons of boys ranch programs and tips for parents in researching what type of boys ranch may be the best option for their son.

Parents who are looking for help for troubled teen boys may find that there are many programs available, but it can be hard to find information about which programs are most likely to help in a particular situation. When looking at boys ranch programs, this confusion may be compounded by the fact that there are many types of boys ranch programs with different focuses, serving teens with different types of problems.

Boys ranch programs are generally group residential treatment facilities that serve adolescents and teens with various needs. Some programs focus on first-time criminal offenders, boys with disabilities, or at-risk boys. Many boys ranch programs operated through the juvenile justice system are based on the Missouri model - small, regional correctional facilities with counseling, supervision, a home-like atmosphere, and the opportunity for the boys to wear their own clothing. Not all of these programs are necessarily located on a working ranch.

Boys ranch programs that are located on working ranches may focus on developing a number of skills in teens by giving them an opportunity to live and work with others on a ranch under careful supervision. They may help with:

  • Building self-confidence
  • Instilling discipline
  • Fostering social skills
  • Improving work ethic
  • Learning practical skills

Some ranch programs also provide education, therapy, or other teen needs. Programs may be just a few weeks, especially for younger teens who don't have serious problems, or they may be long-term programs, such as for teens who have been in the juvenile justice system. The programs usually have youth living, working, and eating together, under close supervision by staff.

Parents who are considering a boys' ranch program should ask a number of questions about the program to find out if it is right for their teens:

  • Who runs the program? Many boys ranch programs are run by local or state agencies like school districts or the juvenile justice system. Others are run by private groups or individuals.
  • Is the program licensed, certified, or accredited by any legitimate group? Some boys ranch programs are approved by local juvenile justice programs, child services agencies, or other local or state agencies. This means that they are periodically inspected and found to provide safe and responsible care to the youth in the program.
  • What is the success rate of the boys ranch program? Parents should ask about the success of the program in making changes, not only while the youth are in the program, but also a year or more after they leave it.
  • What is the programs' reputation? It's important to do background research about the program to make sure it doesn't have any problems with health or safety violations, or with abuse or overly harsh methods. Talking to school districts or law enforcement agencies, child welfare services, and other parents who have used the programs is a good way to find out more about it.
  • What is the programs' mission statement and goals, and how do they accomplish these? Some programs called ranch programs are more like group homes or camps. These programs may have success at teaching youth better social or emotional skills, but may not involve work on a ranch. If parents want their teens to learn ranch-related work skills, they should be certain that that is part of the program. Also, parents should ask about and feel comfortable with the discipline procedures used in the ranch program.
  • What population does the boys ranch program serve? Many ranch programs serve a specific population, and parents should make sure these align with their teens' needs. The ranch should focus on teens in the same age range and with problems similar to those of your teen. It would probably not be helpful, for instance, to put a 12 year old with problems in school in a program for 17 year old former gang members.
  • Who are the staff and what are their qualification? Teen to staff ratios should be low, meaning that there are not too many teens for each staff member to watch and help. The staff should all have undergone background checks, and those who provide counseling, give medications, or teach school classes should be licensed to do so.
  • How does the boys ranch program handle safety issues? Especially for ranches that involve working with farm equipment or live animals, or that help teens with serious problems, parents should feel very comfortable that the teens’ safety is a top priority and is carefully considered and addressed.
  • Where is the boys ranch program located? Some programs only serve those in their state or local district.
  • What does the boys ranch program cost? Public programs may be free or very low cost to qualified participants, while private programs are usually more expensive, but may offer scholarships.

If possible, parents should visit a ranch program before admitting their boys to the program. This will help them to know if the program is run well and is likely to help their teen. Parents should also remember that changes in troubled teens take time, and they shouldn’t expect a program to provide an instant or complete fix for their teen. Good programs that are carefully selected, however, may help teens to make changes that will turn their lives around over time.


U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, "Delinquency Prevention Programs" [online]
Florida Sherriffs Youth Ranches [online]
California State Library, "California Research Bureau Panel Presentation: Reforming California Juvenile Corrections: The Santa Clara Example" [online]
County of Los Angeles, Department of Auditor-Controllor, "Group Home Program Monitoring Report" [online]
South Dakota Department of Education, Special Education Programs, "McCrossan Boys Ranch District Continuous Improvement Monitoring Process Report 2007" [online]
State of Oregon, Oregon Youth Authority, "Residential Resource Directory" [online]

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