The Montana Senate

The Montana Senate holds a floor session on Jan. 27 during the 2019 Montana Legislature.

A bill to shift oversight of private residential treatment programs for troubled teens cleared a legislative House panel by a wide margin on Wednesday, but not before a Great Falls lawmaker added an amendment erasing requirements that staff be qualified.

Senate Bill 267, carried by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, cleared the House Business and Labor Committee on an 18-1 vote on Wednesday. The proposal would eliminate the state board that now comprises a majority of those who operate the programs, therefore allowing them to regulate themselves. It would shift state oversight of the residential treatment programs from the Department of Labor and Industry to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

On Wednesday, Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, amended the bill to remove the department's requirement to develop "minimum standards" for things such as "suitability, credentials, training, experience and other qualifications" for all program employees. 

In response to questions from other committee members, Buttrey said he had not spoken with Sands about the amendment, which is in line with how the programs currently operate, but had heard enough concerns from program operators and other state lawmakers to bring the amendment forward.

"Some of them felt like that was a concern," Buttrey told the committee on Wednesday. "It would either make them uncompetitive or could potentially cause them to close their doors. … We're still moving (the programs) to DPHHS, but we didn't want to worry about the department doing something that could harm some of the good actors in the business."

The Missoulian was unable to reach Buttrey by press time.

Rep. Christopher Pope, D-Bozeman, said in committee the amendment seemed to chip away at the effort behind the proposal.

On Tuesday, Warner Rodriguez testified before the committee on his time at one of the programs, Clearview Horizon in Heron, telling lawmakers he believed he would die "in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere."

Clearview Horizon was once directed by the same people whose previous program saw the suicide of one girl voted off high-risk status by an untrained staff. The same people now run Reflections Academy, where a staffer with no certifications for dealing with young girls with troubling issues is accused of grooming several girls there and sexually abusing at least one. Those accusations were contained in three recent lawsuits against Reflections.

Rep. Neil Duram, R-Eureka, on Wednesday made note for the record that as many as a thousand troubled kids have gone through schools in his area in northern Lincoln County to go on toward productive lives. He said just one suicide and only one attempted suicide in 12 years was "a success story," considering the troubled nature of children in the program.

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But the Missoulian's previous reporting found there have, in fact, been two suicides in that time frame, while police reports obtained by the Missoulian show multiple reports of attempted suicide at different programs. 

While those numbers are not tallied by the Department of Labor and Industry, they are, however, often overshadowed by the graduation rates promoted by the programs themselves. 

"I would like to encourage these schools to continue their hard work to save these children and have them turn out to be viable, productive adults," Duram said. 

Buttrey told members of the committee on Wednesday that the Senate can still reject the amendment, and the matter would be hashed out in conference committee in that case. 

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