Montana Academy

Montana Academy, located near Marion, opened in 1997 as a way to "move psychiatric care out from under hospital overheads and to reduce the cost" for teenagers that could be treated on an open ranch, co-director John McKinnon said. A boy from Colorado with severe depression killed himself there in 2017.

A state board regulating private residential treatment programs for troubled teens said Thursday it supports a bill calling for the board to disband and shift the oversight of programs to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The board said it would support the shift under the condition that program representatives could work with DPHHS to review and develop regulations that reflect the programs’ needs.

Carter Anderson, the administrator for the Quality Assurance Division at DPHHS, told the board Thursday his agency would do that if the bill sponsored by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, passes.

"We like to have a relationship with our providers,'' said Anderson, who briefly worked for a wilderness program in Florida that catered to troubled teens before coming to Montana 20 years ago.

The legislation would move the existing rules for the largely for-profit programs for troubled teens to DPHHS from the Department of Labor and Industry. 

Anderson said that means programs licensed by the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Program board would not automatically be subject to DPHHS rules for youth care facilities.

He said, for example, the department could adopt the PAARP rule that gives programs seven days advance notice before inspections occur.

John Santa, head of the PAARP board and co-founder of Montana Academy, said he was pleased the health department "seemed very receptive to understanding that (its) specific rules would need to be altered'' to accommodate "the level of care that we currently offer.''

He said he was encouraged the health department was willing to discuss creating standards that "honor the rules that we have created and then have them adjusted to meet our needs.''

The majority of PAARP board members are program directors who regulate the same programs they operate.

An investigation by the Missoulian found that the board issued no significant sanctions despite 58 complaints made against the programs since the state began licensing them 12 years ago.

The Missoulian also found that teens attending some programs to receive treatment for serious emotional and behavioral problems were cared for by untrained and unlicensed staff, were isolated from their parents and limited to monitored communication. In one case, a program is accused of failing to protect teenage girls from alleged grooming and sexual assault by an employee.

Anderson said that although he has read through the PAARP board rules, he is not yet familiar with program policies and procedures.

“Generally speaking, I think when I’ve read through the websites for the PAARP members, you’ve got licensed therapists, you’ve got all these people that are working to try to help kids … I’m just assuming that you guys are trying to do a good job with the kids that you’ve got out there and we need to try to do our job to support you guys to do that.”

Anderson said he would work with programs to make sure they adhere to basic health and safety standards.

In moving to DPHHS, Anderson said some complaints could be made public, adding that DPHHS has more resources to conduct investigations into complaints than the Labor Department.

However, Anderson said there could also be exceptions for programs, such as how onsite inspections are conducted.

“The current PAARP rules require seven-day notice for those,” Anderson said. “We would honor those although our standard procedure is unannounced that we have within the department now.”

The board also agreed to support three other bills pertaining to private residential programs. HB 222 would eliminate the “religious exemption” that allows programs affiliated with a religious organization to avoid oversight of any kind. HB 282 would criminalize sexual relationships between program staff and vulnerable youth, even if those youths are older than the age of consent of 16. And HB 105 would amend how the board considers reciprocity licenses.

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