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'The right thing': New law criminalizes sex between students, teen treatment staff

'The right thing': New law criminalizes sex between students, teen treatment staff

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It's now illegal for staff and therapists at private residential treatment programs for troubled teens to have sexual relationships with the teens they treat — even if those clients are 16, the age of consent in Montana.

On Thursday, Lance Jasper and Rob Bell, two Missoula attorneys who helped draft the bill, attended a ceremonial signing at the Capitol of the bill outlawing such conduct.

"This protects them from sexual abuse when they're in a vulnerable position," said Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, who carried the bill. 

House Bill 282 seeks to address an imbalance of power between the parties, which may be especially prevalent in situations where teens are sent to programs for sexual trauma or promiscuity.

The new law won’t retroactively apply to cases like the one against Reflections Academy in Thompson Falls, where former supervisor Chaffin Pullan is being sued, accused of "grooming" girls at the program and sexually abusing at least one. Bob Zimmerman, a county attorney in Sanders County at the time the allegations emerged, previously told the Missoulian that his office couldn’t pursue prosecution against Chaffin because the accuser was over the age of consent.

If HB 282 had already been law, Pullan would have been subject to criminal prosecution.

Jasper and Bell helped draft the bill, and represent one of the girls who allege misconduct by Chaffin. The attorneys said they believe sexual predators seek out work at these programs, where they hold positions of power over teens who have limited or no communication and are housed in programs in remote locations in northwest Montana.

Jasper and Bell have litigated such a program before — Monarch, near Heron — where parents of students alleged the program owners, who charged more than $30,000 a semester, were using the school as their “personal piggy bank.” Former students there previously told the Missoulian their treatment was sometimes counterproductive.

This past September, the school agreed to to pay nearly $1 million to families of the clients it shut out of the school with just two days' notice a year earlier.

“The conceptual nature of these schools is, if ran right and done in a manner following therapeutic standards, could be really beneficial to some of these kids, and that’s what you want to see,” Jasper said. “Why not have them in Montana? … The good ones will continue to do well and the ones that are not doing it are going to be out of business.”

The new law applies to any employee, contractor, or volunteer associated with a program, regardless of whether or not they are a paid employee. It also applies to any individual providing “psychotherapy services,” regardless of whether the individual providing such services is licensed or unlicensed.

Loge noted the bipartisan effort that went into getting the bill approved after Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, carried the bill through the Senate floor.

“It was the right thing,” Loge said. “It didn’t need to be partisan.”

Loge also noted one amendment to the bill that termed a “partner surrogate,” not otherwise defined in state law, could work with a client to provide sex therapy as long as they worked in conjunction with a social worker, professional counselor or licensed clinical professional counselor.

Although Loge did not support the amendment, Jasper and Bell noted that it was unlikely that someone would cite that portion of the law as a viable reason for having sexual relations with a program participant.

Another bill to shift oversight of private alternative residential programs for youth in Montana awaits Gov. Steve Bullock’s signature. Like Loge's bill, that measure sponsored by Sands aims to bolster protections for youth in such programs.

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