Legislators passed around tissues as they listened Tuesday to emotional testimony from a former student of Clearview Horizon, who said he endured physical labor and emotional abuse during his time at the residential program for troubled teens in Heron.
Warner Rodriguez, whose birth name is Reina Rodriguez and now identifies as male, spoke in support of a bill that would shift oversight of programs for troubled teens away from a state board that has said it is ill-equipped to properly oversee the programs it is responsible for regulating.
“I thought my life would end there in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere,” Rodriguez said, unable to hold back tears.
During his time at Clearview, Rodriguez said he watched students use drugs, harm themselves and even drink bleach.
He said therapy groups involved “social humiliation” and special intensive therapy sessions known as “processes” that consisted of “voting on what peers should live or die, beating towels on the floor and screaming in a pitch-black dark room, and being criticized.”
“The effects of this trauma have been huge for me and have left me with PTSD and major anxiety,” Rodriguez said. “I have a tremendous fear of being confined and it has prevented me from seeking psychiatric help for some of these issues because I don’t want to be in a hospital.”
Rodriguez urged legislators to pass the bill, which would eliminate the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Program (PAARP) board that currently oversees programs under the auspices of the Department of Labor and Industry, and move regulation to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
“When there’s nothing that holds these institutions accountable, it's hard to even move past this trauma for me,” Rodriguez said, adding that he still has nightmares.
Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula is carrying Senate Bill 267 to shift regulation of residential programs. Sands said the board has failed to properly oversee programs due to a conflict of interest with PAARP board members who profit from the programs they regulate. The law that created the PAARP board mandated that three of its five members come from the residential programs.
“What we’re really asking to be done is to move it over to the quality assurance division that already regulates very similar kinds of facilities where we can ensure that there will be transparency when there are complaints, we can ensure that licensing and certifications are met, and when there is a complaint, its investigated,” Sands said.
Sands felt hopeful following the hearing Tuesday: “Personal testimony is what impacts legislators.”
There was plenty of personal testimony.
Jennifer Shaw, a former teacher who worked at Clearview from June 2014 to March 2015, said she attended the hearing “to speak on behalf of a lot of students who don’t live here in Montana and wanted to be here.”
Shaw came to the hearing with a stack of written testimonies from former students and parents concerning Clearview, Spring Creek Lodge and Reflections Academy — programs in western Montana that have been or are currently owned and operated by the same people.
The testimonies, which span the last three decades, include allegations of sexual abuse and grooming by program administrators, one of whom is involved in three ongoing lawsuits for grooming girls and sexually abusing at least one at Reflections Academy.
Shaw said that former students and parents contacted her to share their experiences after she testified in support of HB 282 to protect vulnerable youth from sexual misconduct with individuals associated with a program in any way.
That bill, which was passed by the Legislature and awaits the governor's signature, will criminalize sexual acts between workers affiliated with such programs and program participants, even if the participant is old enough to legally consent.
Shaw shared her knowledge of inappropriate relations and grooming behaviors at the March 15 hearing. She believes that her decision to come forward and share what she witnessed as a former staff member has motivated others to come forward.
The written testimonies she submitted Tuesday include information from students who attended programs from 1993 to 2019, as well as a letter from the mother of a former Clearview student who killed herself after she left the program.
“She returned to us more broken and damaged than she was when she arrived there, with mental anguish we had never seen and emotional carnage that she carried with her every day until she took her own life in the fall of 2016, at the age of 21,” the letter read.
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The testimonies also cite manual labor used as punishment, the “processes,” inadequate medical care, failure to provide treatment for students with an eating disorder, and "level" systems that required students to rate each other’s progress.
Rodriguez testified that he was required to run up and down a steep gravel pit “big enough to see on Google Satellite map” as a punishment for write-ups for “mindless things anyone with ADD would forget,” such as leaving fabric softener under her bed.
Shaw corroborated many of Rodriguez’s experiences, although she did not work at the program while Rodriguez was there. (Rodriguez attended Clearview from December 2011 to December 2012.)
Shaw said that the therapy methods she saw used at Clearview were “questionable at best, and abusive and psychologically damaging at worst.”
She cited the level system and sub-par education that included the option for students to “earn” a spot at the local public high school. Shaw said students were subjected to punishment in the form of labor that involved cleaning staff houses and cars.
She also noted the PAARP board’s failure to investigate the program, and provided documentation that showed the facility was inspected on a day when the girls were off-campus on a field trip.
“Their site visits and investigations appear to be biased in favor of the programs,” Shaw said. “They give them the benefit of the doubt.”
If the bill passes and the programs are moved under DPHHS, programs would be held to higher regulatory standards that are more in line with other similar facilities.
“We’ll be able to increase the safety of the youth and residents in these facilities by increasing transparency and ensuring consistent standards of care,” Carter Anderson, the administrator for the Quality Assurance Division at DPHHS, said at the hearing.
Rep. Sue Vinton, R-Billings was skeptical of DPHHS’ ability to take on another responsibility.
“It just seems like that department has its own issues in terms of being able to handle everything they're required to handle,” Vinton said.
Anderson said he doesn’t foresee problems taking on residential programs or hiring someone to investigate and monitor programs.
Vinton said she was “cautiously optimistic” following the hearing.
“I have concerns about DPHHS but at the same time, I think those are the people that are best equipped to deal with these very serious and troubling issues,” Vinton said.
Rodriguez said he is desperate for change.
“I don’t know what it takes for action to change for more regulations to be imposed to make sure kids are safe and that people aren't taken advantage of or scammed out of their money,” he said. Tuition for some of the private, for-profit programs tops $100,000 a year.
“I don’t know what it takes anymore, because there’s been plenty of suicides and drug overdoses. I would just beg you to make some changes, please, today.”
Sands said she was thankful that Rodriguez spoke at the hearing and said it was “just one personal example of dozens of people who have suffered through those unregulated systems.”
Sands is confident that the committee will act on the bill. If they vote to pass it, it will go to the House floor and assuming it is not amended, it would go to the governor for signature or veto.
“There will be a bill signing on this,” Sands said, adding that she hopes Rodriguez and others attend the signing. “I hope they will come because it's for them.”