The state agency tasked with regulating private residential treatment programs for troubled teens said Wednesday it had not performed its role of ensuring the safety of children well and called for oversight to be shifted to the state health department.
"I don't think the Department of Labor has done the best job running this program," said Judy Bovington, the department's chief legal counsel.
For a dozen years, a board that sits under the Labor Department has overseen the operation of 16 private, largely for-profit programs in Montana. An investigation by the Missoulian found that in that time, the board issued no significant sanctions despite at least 58 complaints made against the state-licensed programs, some of which charge desperate parents more than $100,000 a year.
The Missoulian’s year-long examination found that in some cases, unlicensed and untrained staff are caring for children and teens with serious emotional and physical problems, students are often isolated from their parents for months at a time and, in one case, a program is accused of failing to protect teenage girls from alleged grooming and sexual assault by an employee.
The schools are regulated by the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Program board, whose majority is made up of members from the industry it regulates.
A bill from Sen. Diane Sands, a Democrat from Missoula, would eliminate the board and move licensing of the programs under the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
"The board in my opinion has utterly failed to fulfill its responsibility," Sands said. "We owe the children that are in these programs our oversight and our protection."
Bovington said the Labor Department does not have the expertise to oversee the board.
"It is like putting a square peg in a round hole," Bovington said. "We don't have the staff who have the experience and it has been like reinventing the wheel each time."
Carter Anderson, the administrator for the Quality Assurance Division within the state health department, said his division is set up to regulate entities like the programs because it already licenses more than 300 residential facilities around the state, including 72 youth care centers.
Anderson said DPHHS would be able to increase the safety of youth and add more transparency about how the programs operate.
Sen. Sue Malek, a Democrat from Missoula, tried to press Bovington about details revealed in the Missoulian series, specifically about one of the schools that was banned from operating in Mexico and later shut down here.
"Why is that happening in Montana?" Malek asked. "How can they receive a license in Montana?" Malek also pressed about how background checks were conducted.
Bovingdon said she could not speak about specific applications from schools. And Sen. David Howard, a Republican from Park City, chided Malek for her questions.
"We are not going to condemn a witness that comes in here. We're not going to condemn the past program," Howard said.
The Labor Department said it costs about $130,000 to operate the board, money that would be shifted to the health department's budget if Sands' bill passes. The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee did not take immediate action on the bill Wednesday.