A bill to shift oversight of private residential programs for troubled teens to the Department of Public Health and Human Services passed the House Wednesday and will move to the Senate floor for a final vote.
The bill, which passed 77-22, would move the regulation of alternative residential treatment programs for teens away from a state board that has been referred to as the "fox guarding the henhouse" because the board's majority comprises owners and administrators who oversee the same programs from which they profit.
SB 267, sponsored by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, would terminate the Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP) under the Department of Labor and Industry, and move programs under the state Department of Health and Human Services.
An investigation by the Missoulian found that since the PAARP board began granting licenses in 2007, there have been 58 complaints against programs, yet not a single program has faced significant sanctions.
Sands' bill passed following amendments that cut language mandating minimum standards of care and requiring all program employees to be trained, certified and qualified.
At a second reading on Monday, Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, said he met with program owners the night before he proposed the amendment to cut the section of the bill outlining minimum standards of care. He has not responded to inquiries from the Missoulian regarding the identity of those owners.
Despite the amendments, the bill would still give DPHHS the authority to enact rules and regulations and move oversight out of the hands of program owners.
"I'm ecstatic," said Jennifer Shaw, a former teacher at Clearview Horizon, a program in Heron, who previously testified in support of SB 267.
Shaw said that she thinks the "program owners' back-room dealings to amend the bill at the last minute" served as an example of the way programs operate. Bills are aired in legislative committees to give the proponents and opponents a public forum in which to weigh in. Brown's discussions with the program owners were not held in public.
Shaw thinks there's still a long way to go; however, she called the bill a "step in the right direction."
"It's taken nearly two decades to make it to this point," Shaw added.
Emily Carter, a former student who attended Clearview Horizon from 2014 to 2015, said it's still hard for her to believe that the bill has made it this far.
"I'm so excited that people are finally realizing what's happening in these programs and are willing to do something about it," Carter said.
In March, Carter testified in support of HB 222 which would have regulated religious programs that currently avoid state licensure by claiming association with a ministry. The bill died in committee, adding to a history of failed attempts to bring religious programs under licensure.
Carter said she had heard the bill to shift oversight to DPHHS was moving through the Legislature but she was hesitant to get her hopes up. However, she's still apprehensive about the potential transition to DPHHS.
"It makes me nervous that the program owners are still being given so much input when they've clearly been shown to have way more interest in profiting than protecting the health and safety of children," Carter said, adding that she hopes DPHHS remains aware that programs are private, for-profit businesses.
Tuition at some of the programs tops $100,000 annually.
The health department previously said it may work with representatives from programs in creating new regulations; however, the specifics have not yet been negotiated.
In addition to new regulations that are more in line with the 72 other youth facilities under DPHHS' Quality Assurance Division, the move to DPHHS would make more complaints accessible by the public.
If the Senate votes to approve the bill, it will head to Gov. Steve Bullock's desk.
The PAARP board was created in 2005 following a student's death by suicide at one of the programs a year earlier, spurring calls for regulation.
As legislation was developed, the programs quickly mobilized to claim their own seat at the table. In the end, the proposal to give oversight to the state labor department won out over a bill to put the programs under the health department’s regulation, despite a 2003 report by DPHHS that found several instances of unmitigated child abuse at a number of programs.