This year was my first at the Missoulian and a good portion of it was spent reporting on the “Troubled kids, troubled system” series alongside Lucy Tompkins and Seaborn Larson. Shortly after joining the Missoulian, I learned that former K-12 education reporter Lucy Tompkins had been investigating a five-member state board that was responsible for regulating private alternative adolescent residential programs in Montana, although three of the board’s members were directors of the same programs they were responsible for regulating. I wanted to report on these kind of programs since I attended a similar program in West Virginia as a high schooler, and for the Missoulian’s series, I was able to draw on my knowledge of the industry to gain the trust of former students who shared their experiences at the programs.
Our series — based on public documents obtained through records requests, countless interviews and several visits — revealed that in the 12 years of the board’s supervision, not one of the 58 complaints made to the board resulted in significant action.
The series was published just before the start of Montana’s 2019 legislative session, and it resulted in two new laws, with sponsors attributing the Missoulian’s reporting for their impetus to change. I wrote about one law that disbanded the oversight board and moved regulation of the programs from the labor department to the health department, in addition to another law that outlawed sex between program staff and clients.
Just 23 days after the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services took over regulation in July, I wrote about the department’s decision to suspend the license of a program called the Ranch for Kids, from which they removed all 27 children after complaints of abuse and neglect. The Missoulian is continuing to report on this series as oversight changes from the health department, resulting in changes such as a new set of rules governing the programs with increased protections for youth.