Lance Jasper and Rob Bell

Missoula attorneys Lance Jasper, left, and Rob Bell have litigated two lawsuits against residential treatment programs for troubled teens. They've also helped draft legislative language they hope will become part of a bill making teachers and counselors who engage in sexual relationships with students subject to prosecution.

The Montana Legislature is considering a bill that seeks to protect vulnerable youth from sexual misconduct in private alternative adolescent treatment programs.

The bill would criminalize sexual acts between workers affiliated with such programs and program participants, even if the participant is old enough to legally consent.

The bill would amend existing state law governing consent to recognize the inherent power and trust dynamics of a psychotherapist-patient relationship. It would also apply to staff in such programs, even if they aren't licensed therapists.

Montana's age of consent is 16, but the bill states that the consent of a patient is not valid in a psychotherapist-patient relationship or in the context of a student at a private alternative residential program.

“It’s not to take their rights away as a young adult, but it’s to protect them because they’re in a vulnerable state,” said Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, who is carrying the bill.

Loge's proposal, HB 282, was drafted with the help of Missoula attorneys Rob Bell and Lance Jasper. The two attorneys filed one of three recent lawsuits against Reflections Academy, a residential treatment program for troubled teenage girls in Sanders County.

All three of the lawsuits — filed between Oct. 5 and Christmas Eve 2018, in Sanders County District Court — allege that the program misrepresented the qualifications of its staff and employed a man named Chaffin Pullan accused of sexually grooming young girls who attended the program. Pullan has a long history of working in residential programs in Montana and elsewhere.

The bill, heard by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, adds language to the law to include private alternative adolescent residential or outdoor programs, where parents send their teens to deal with a range of emotional issues. No one spoke in opposition to the bill.

“When they get in these schools, there’s a feeling of trust for the people that are trying to help them out so they can become a victim for the predators who may be taking care of them, giving them advice, and even the help that works in those facilities,” Loge said.

Loge said the bill would provide youth and young adults in the programs with “a little additional safety from those sexual predators,” adding that participants’ thought processes might not be as clear as other young adults who are not dealing with the same emotional problems.

Bell told the committee that “other states have addressed this very issue and effectively passed statutes that say consent to sexual relations in that environment cannot be freely granted because of all of the trust, confidence and very, very personal information that is divulged by a patient to a psychotherapist.” He added that many programs claim to treat teens with behavioral issues such as sexual promiscuity.

“They’re being brought there to heal that aspect of their lives and then being taken advantage of because they are prone to those kinds of behaviors,” Bell said.

Bell said the proposed legislation would apply to staff at programs licensed through the state Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP) that oversees such programs. It also would apply to unlicensed religious programs, as long as they provide or purport to provide psychotherapy services.

The bill defines psychotherapy services as treatment, diagnosis, or counseling in a professional relationship to help individuals or groups with behavioral or mental health disorders.

As the Missoulian reported in the “Troubled teens, troubled industry” series, staff at alternative treatment programs operate in a variety of roles, with many unlicensed staff members providing therapy services to residents.

Bell said the bill addresses this issue head-on by including language to include both licensed mental health providers, in addition to employees, contractors, or volunteers of facilities that provide psychotherapy services to program participants, where the staff member has supervisory or disciplinary authority.

“The concept underlying this is really that disparate relationship underlying this,” Bell said.

Anita Milanovich, a constitutional litigation attorney speaking as a lobbyist for the Montana Family Foundation, spoke in support of the bill at the Tuesday hearing.

“We’re surprised that these contents were not already included and we believe that they should be,” Milanovich said.

Milanovich’s statement stood in contrast to previous years when the Montana Family Foundation fought against any state regulation of religious programs providing therapy services.

Michael Toppen also supported the bill on behalf of the Montana Public Interest Research Group, saying: “The language in this bill protects patients and clients and acknowledges the power dynamics that are inherent in mental health services for people that are in a vulnerable state.”

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