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Lawsuit blaming Fargo treatment center for 12-year-old's suicide can go to trial, appeals court says

The Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch was acting on behalf of the state when it took over care for Aliana Roberson, judges ruled.

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Aliana Roberson
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FARGO — A lawsuit that alleges the Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch is responsible for the death of a 12-year-old who died by suicide at the organization’s Fargo facility should not have been dismissed without a trial, a U.S. appeals court ruled Tuesday, Aug. 2.

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals said North Dakota U.S. District Court Judge Peter Welte was wrong to rule that the Ranch was not acting under state authority when it provided mental health treatment for Aliana Roberson in 2018. Aliana was 12 years old when she took her life on Oct. 2, 2018, at the residential treatment and education center for children.

“The family is pleased with this ruling,” said Andrew Noel, a Minneapolis attorney who is representing Aliana’s parents in the case. “What it means for them is they will get their day in court.”

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The Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch Al and Johnne Bierdeman Center for Hope and Healing at its south Fargo location. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Her parents, Manda and Alfonzo Roberson, filed a federal lawsuit against the Ranch and staff members in January 2021. They alleged staff ignored “explicit warnings” that Aliana was at risk of harming herself and that the Ranch failed to ensure she would not have the opportunity to take her own life.

Aliana was diagnosed with several mental illnesses and attempted to harm herself before a North Dakota Juvenile Court determined in May 2018 she was “delinquent," “disobedient” and “unruly.” That resulted in state Juvenile Services taking over custody from her parents.

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Aliana tried to take her own life while at the Youth Correctional Center in Mandan, so Juvenile Services placed her in the care of the Ranch in Fargo, according to court documents. She was expected to get treatment at the Ranch for four months, court documents said.

Doctors classified her as “very high risk” shortly after she was admitted to the Ranch, and staff were required to watch her at all times, according to court documents. She was deemed low-risk in mid-September 2018, though a civil complaint noted Aliana made comments about harming herself.

Behavioral issues prompted staff to punish Aliana on Oct. 2, 2018, which upset her greatly, according to the complaint. That night, staff allowed her to use the bathroom, but not before she grabbed something from her room, the complaint alleged. Staff did not try to stop Aliana or determine what she took, according to the complaint.

Staff checked on the girl when she was in the bathroom, and at one point she made a comment about not wanting to live anymore, the complaint alleged. Staff also found a note on her bed, the complaint said.

Staff then found Aliana dead in the bathroom.

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In January 2021, attorney William Behrman, on behalf of the Ranch, called Aliana's death tragic but said the organization is not responsible for her death.

“This incident was investigated by law enforcement, multiple agencies and accrediting bodies,” Behrman previously told The Forum. “Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch fully cooperated with the investigations, and it is my understanding that in all instances the investigations were closed without further action.”

Welte previously ruled in favor of the Ranch in Fargo, which argued it is a private treatment facility that could not be found liable for Aliana’s death under the Robersons’ claims.

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But the appeals court disagreed. North Dakota Juvenile Services had a “constitutional obligation” to give Aliana adequate medical care because a state court gave it full custody of the child, Eighth Circuit Judge Duane Benton opined.

Juvenile Services also had sole “care, custody and control” of Aliana when she died at the Ranch, Benton noted. Her parents had to comply with the decisions of Juvenile Services and couldn’t remove Aliana from the Ranch, the judge wrote. Aliana also had no choice but to accept treatment from the Ranch, he said.

“North Dakota outsourced its constitutional obligation to the Ranch,” Benton opined, adding the Ranch’s ongoing relationship to Juvenile Services makes it and its employees state actors.

The ruling allows not only for a possible jury trial but also for Noel’s team to interview Ranch employees to determine what went wrong in Aliana’s case, the attorney said.

“The parents should have reasonable belief that their child is going to be safe in a situation like that,” Noel said. “Here, the parents were expecting to get their child back after the course of treatment at the Ranch.”

Noel said he hopes this case prompts others to reevaluate how the juvenile system handles children who have mental illnesses.

The Ranch stands by its original statement provided to The Forum, Behrmann said, noting it would not comment further on the pending case.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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