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Reflections Academy, outside Thompson Falls, has been the subject of three civil lawsuits since October by families alleging program administrators misrepresented the type of therapy they would provide and failed to protect their daughters from a supervisor who groomed them for inappropriate sexual relationships. 

State lawmakers are working on legislation to bring residential treatment programs for troubled youth under the regulatory control of the Department of Public Health and Human Services instead of a board dominated by owners of the private, largely for-profit schools.

“We’re talking about the health and safety of one of the most vulnerable populations in Montana, with kids that are going to these camps and residential programs,” said Rep. Zac Perry, the Hungry Horse Democrat who requested the bill. “It just seems to make sense that oversight would come from DPHHS.”

The Missoulian's recent Troubled Kids, Troubled System series showed that the programs allow unlicensed counselors to care for children and teens with serious emotional and physical problems, often isolate students from their parents for months at a time and, in one case, allegedly failed to protect teenage girls from alleged grooming and sexual assault by an employee.

Yet during the last 12 years, not a single one of the 58 complaints made to the industry-dominated state regulatory board resulted in significant discipline against any of the programs, which are clustered in western Montana.

The bill would terminate the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Program board and migrate each program the board has licensed to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The PAARP board is currently housed in the Department of Labor and Industry, which does not have expertise in mental health, child safety or adolescent education.

A spokesman for DPHHS did not immediately have comment on the draft.

A majority of the PAARP board — three of its five members — is made up of people who run Montana's 16 licensed programs for troubled kids. By legislative design, complaints made against programs are sealed until substantiated, and not one has been made public.

Aside from costly litigation in pursuing a program that falsely claimed a religious exemption, which would have allowed it to avoid any state regulation, no program has been disciplined or seen its license revoked. Eleven stipulations have been signed after the board looked into complaints, but those are not readily available to the public.

John Santa, chair of the PAARP board and a founder of Montana Academy, the state’s largest program, was not available for comment Tuesday. He did, however, tell the Missoulian last week that he would endorse a move to add another public member to the board, giving the public an equal number of members.

But he underscored his concern about changes that would “abolish” the board altogether.

The program directors have demanded they be allowed input on regulatory measures since 2005, when a program director and state lawmaker, Paul Clark of Trout Creek, brought one of the first bills for state oversight.

He said owners of the programs wanted to ensure regulation could accommodate the programs’ distinctive characteristics and treatment methods, many of which are developed in-house. As Clark put it then, the programs wanted to be involved, "rather than being dragged along on a leash."

"You don't want it to be run by people who don't understand it," Santa told the Missoulian last week. "You have to have people who understand what the issues are."

Santa was also concerned with adjustments to the regulatory structure put in place in 2007, when program directors had a direct hand in developing the licensing mechanism that exists today. 

The 2019 bill, still in the drafting process, would require DPHHS to apply and administer "the existing rules" of the PAARP board, as long as they don't conflict with DPHHS policy, until the department can establish rules of its own. 

Perry said Tuesday that lawmakers have been in talks with PAARP board members and are still working on the details of the bill, currently tabbed LC3217. The current draft, for example, would still allow a licensing exemption for programs that claim a religious affiliation. Right now, Perry is carrying another bill, HB222, that would close that loophole. 

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Bringing these programs under the authority of DPHHS was first suggested in a 2003 report by the department, back when there was no oversight for private teen treatment programs in the state. 

"If Montana would choose to create rules for licensure at this time, it would be the first state to begin licensure regulations prior to a death or serious injury occurring in one of the behavior healthcare facilities," the report stated.

After the report was completed, Karlye Newman killed herself at Spring Creek Lodge Academy near Thompson Falls. The next legislative session, in 2005, regulatory gears began turning.

The 2003 report highlighted how programs typically operated, as well as the problems facing children and parents, who paid as much as $5,500 a month for enrollment then. Today, some programs charge more than $8,000 a month, plus additional fees.

In one case, Silver Bow County Child Protective Services took 11 teens into protective custody after social workers found them camping in cold, rainy weather with little food and shelter. The report also noted a program that settled in civil court with the family of a girl who alleged the program director took inappropriate photos of her and fondled her. That program director, Steve Fairbank, still works at Building Bridges as a therapist; the program is still in operation, but doesn't accept girls. 

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Another lawmaker, Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, has brought a bill this session to criminalize therapists in PAARP schools who engage in sexual relationships with residents there. The bill is in response to three civil lawsuits filed since October against a Thompson Falls program, Reflections Academy, and two of its operators, one of whom is alleged to have sexually groomed and assaulted girls there. Loge brought the bill to the House Judiciary Committee last month; by the time its second draft hit the House Floor, eight other lawmakers had co-signed to introduce it.

The bill, HB282, passed the floor on a 97-2 vote. It's next hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet been scheduled.

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