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Court News Ohio

Seventh District: State Can Close Wilderness Boys Camp Until It Gets Operating License

Nearly five years after a Noble County camp for troubled boys began fighting a state order to stop operating without a specific state license, a state appeals court ruled the camp can be closed until the license is issued.

The Seventh District Court of Appeals Friday approved an injunction against the Ohio Wilderness Boys Camp. The appeals court reversed a Noble County Common Pleas Court ruling that said the camp was within its rights to operate under a license granted by the Ohio Department of Health as a residential camp, and did not need the license for caring for children required by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS).

On its website, the camp indicates it helps boys experiencing trouble to work toward appropriate behavior. The average camp stay is 18 months, and the camp is “led, supported, and staffed by the conservative Anabaptist churches” (generally known as Mennonite and Amish).

According to the appellate court, Joe Thompson and Wayne Wengerd planned to open the camp in 2009, and contacted ODJFS to gain certification so that camp services could be offered to boys on court-appointed lists. During the process, a licensing specialist informed them that as a wilderness camp, they would need several variances to receive certification and that the department had a temporary freeze on granting variances.

The men alleged that the specialist informed them they could operate as a residential camp with an Ohio Department of Health license if they did not keep children more than two consecutive weeks at a time. To remove itself from ODJFS jurisdiction, the camp imposed a process of having parents of the boys check out the children for a few hours every two weeks, then check them back into the camp. The program operates on a schedule of nine six-week sessions during the year with four-day breaks between each session.

In May 2010, ODJFS received a report from Noble County of alleged sexual contact between two boys at the camp and did an unannounced inspection. It concluded the camp fell under its jurisdiction and required certification as outlined in R.C. 5103.03.

The department sent a “cease and desist” letter to the camp, but the operators cited its check-out procedure and asserted they did not fall under ODJFS oversight. In September 2012, the state sought an injunction in Noble County Common Pleas Court and in April 2013, the trial court sided with the camp by finding the parent check-out was “sufficient to break” the consecutive-two-weeks requirement in the law.

Writing for the appellate court, Judge Cheryl L. Waite noted that R.C. 5103.03 applies to any organization “that receives or cares for children for two or more consecutive weeks.” Based on the language in the law, the statute is not applied by how long an individual child stays at the camp, she wrote, and further, checking out a child just before a full two weeks is reached does not affect how the law is applied. She found the program clearly operates for six weeks at a time, far more than the two weeks of caring required for certification.

Judge Waite observed that the camp admitted the check-out “was a mere ruse intended to bypass the statutes.” She wrote the state has compelling reasons to certify wilderness camps because Gov. John Kasich vetoed a provision placed in the last state two-year budget that would have exempted the camps from ODJFS certification.

Judges Gene Donofrio and Carol Ann Robb concurred in the decision.

Ohio Dept. of Jobs & Family Servs. v. Ohio Wilderness Boys Camp, 2015-Ohio-2331
Civil Appeal From: Noble County Common Pleas
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: June 12, 2015

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