Lawmakers heard debate on a bill Friday that would close a loophole that allows religious organizations to run residential treatment programs for troubled youth without any state oversight.
"The state has a compelling interest to protect the health and safety of children," said Rep. Zac Perry, a Hungry Horse Democrat and sponsor of House Bill 222.
Opposition to Perry's bill came from the operator and supporters of Pinehaven Christian Children's Ranch and School in St. Ignatius, which says it can treat up to 100 children year-round, and Jeff Laszloffy, president of the powerful Montana Family Foundation.
A recent investigation by the Missoulian found that in the last 10 years, law enforcement reports note 11 runaways, seven reports of abuse and one suicidal teen at Pinehaven, although the reports of abuse could not be substantiated. In 2005, a former staff member was sentenced to prison for raping two girls in the program. At his sentencing, a co-worker said James Barnes of Dixon was hired without receiving training and was unprepared for the stresses and temptations of the job.
In an interview with the Missoulian, Pinehaven founder Robert Larsson said the situation with Barnes "was not an abuse by Pinehaven. That was an aberrant behavior by one person. … That one, we regret but we can't control all staff members."
Pinehaven assisted in law enforcement's investigation of Barnes, he said.
In testimony Friday before the House Judiciary Committee, Laszloffy of the Family Foundation called Pinehaven a "success story.''
About 500 children have gone through Pinehaven over the years since it opened in the 1980s and Laszloffy said the number of incidents at the school has been "extremely small."
He said a caravan of people from Lake County planned to come to Helena to testify in support of the religious exemption Friday but was stuck at a roadblock on U.S. 93 after shootings outside Missoula late Thursday and early Friday killed one, critically wounded a Montana state trooper and sent two other people to the hospital.
Laszloffy also questioned moving state regulation of non-religious residential programs for troubled children to the health department, saying a few weeks earlier the committee had heard from parents and grandparents that had concerns about how the child protection division of the department operates. That would not be the division tasked with overseeing the treatment programs, however. It would fall under the Quality Assurance Division that already investigates facilities around the state.
"Pinehaven has had challenges over the years, but so has everyone," Laszloffy said. "I would argue Pinehaven is doing a very good job with very difficult kids."
Larsson, the Pinehaven founder, told lawmakers his school would be the only one affected by the bill. But a fiscal note points out since the programs aren't tracked now, that's not possible to tell. The note estimates about four other programs would be affected, based on inspections at those facilities.
Larsson said he was concerned state oversight would force religion out of his program.
“Our purpose is to keep Jesus Christ as the most important part of our ministry and history has proven that any time the government or the state is in charge of those, they will eventually work that out of the program,” Larsson said.
Perry said he doesn't want to remove religious from these schools, and that his focus is on protecting the health and safety of children and teenagers.
A father of a student at Pinehaven and a former student also spoke in opposition of the bill, as did a minister associated with the program.
The treatment programs are for children and teens, sometimes with very serious emotional and mental issues, sent for help by often desperate parents.
Bills to end the religious exemption have been brought every session since 2007 but failed to pass. Perry said with the increased attention from the Missoulian series, he thinks this might be the year something changes.
Rep. Denley Loge, a Republican from St. Regis, also advocated Friday for a bill he's carrying that would clarify that there cannot be consent to sexual acts between employees of these programs and youth in the programs. That's House Bill 282.
Lance Jasper, an attorney, said his firm was approached by parents of a child who was sexually assaulted while attending a residential treatment program in Montana.
Jasper said he found that treatment programs fell outside of laws that prevent teachers from having sex with children at other schools and the local county attorney could not prosecute because the child was over the age of 16.
There are at least six other victims of sexual assault Jasper said his firm or others are representing that are in similar situations.
While Jasper said there are good programs that help children, closing the loophole would ensure "if there is a bad actor, they know if they get caught they're going to jail," Jasper said.
Anita Milanovich, a lobbyist for the Montana Family Foundation, spoke in support of Loge's bill in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Neither committee took immediate action on the bills Friday.