Montana religious programs for troubled teens operate with no oversight

From the Troubled kids, troubled system series
  • 9 min to read
Montana religious programs for troubled teens operate with no oversight

In Montana, residential treatment programs can house troubled children and teens without any state oversight if the program claims a tie to a religious organization. 

That means when children are sexually assaulted or psychologically or physically abused, the state's child protection system can move the child to safety but can do nothing to the program or its employees who caused the harm.

"Because they're not licensed, there's no enforcement authority'' over programs by the Division of Child and Family Services, said Sarah Corbally, its former head. Even when the division was able to verify reports of abuse, it "had no ability to follow up and make sure the programs are safe,'' she told the Missoulian. 

Every legislative session since 2007, when the Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Programs (PAARP) was given licensing power and programs affiliated with churches were exempted from oversight, health professionals and lawmakers have fought to close that loophole.

But every time, the bill has failed when church-related groups argued regulation would infringe on their religious freedom, according to videos and audio of legislative hearings and minutes from the Legislature.

In 2017, Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, tried again. Her bill's only proponents were the Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees secular programs for troubled children, and the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

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Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, shown in this file photo from the 2017 Montana Legislature, tried repeatedly to bring religious programs under state regulation.

Robert Larsson, the former director of Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch, and five others from Pinehaven spoke against the bill, saying "we come up every two years and debate the same points every time."

So did Jeff Laszloffy, president, CEO and lobbyist for the Montana Family Foundation.

“We’ve opposed the bill for nine years and we still do,” Laszloffy of the politically powerful foundation told the House Judiciary Committee, where Smith's bill died.

During the 2013 legislative session, Corbally testified that CFS had "multiple, ongoing'' and proven reports of abuse “and there’s absolutely nothing further that can be done by our agency in those situations'' against programs or their employees.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee that same year, Darcie Kelly, a public member of the PAARP board, made the comparison with revelations of abuse cover-ups by the Roman Catholic Church. The Montana board has spent “thousands of dollars in legal fees” litigating against the religious programs, including programs previously licensed by PAARP that switched to church affiliation, she said. 

“Such chicanery and abuse of current statute intent should not be tolerated by the Legislature,” she said. But the bill died in committee.

Corbally was back in 2015, this time to tell lawmakers her agency had received more than 30 reports of abuse and neglect against unlicensed facilities in Montana in the previous five years. Even when they substantiated the reports, CFS didn’t have the authority to tell the programs to stop admitting children, she said.

“There’s no way to regulate what sort of children these programs will or will not accept and determine if they have standards that make them competent for taking care of children with these behavior issues,” she said.

The programs are not required to disclose to parents of prospective students the fact that they’re unregulated. And with most children coming from out of state, parents are unlikely to know.

“What we’re seeing as a trend in many of them is that they’re taking children from out of state, often failed adoptions'' from foreign countries, Corbally said. "And then when these children are not able to be managed by these programs, they’ll often end up in acute psychiatric residential placements in our state.''

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Joyce Sterkel, founder of the Ranch for Kids Project in Eureka, snuggles Lilia, her 3-year-old daughter adopted from a Russian mother, at her home outside the northwest Montana community in this 2013 file photo. Sterkel, whose facility houses troubled adopted kids, many of them Russian, was then battling what she said was unfair scrutiny by both the Russian government and the state of Montana. A judge eventually ruled Ranch for Kids was not tied to a church and did need to be licensed with the state.

She said many of the adopted children have been victims of sexual abuse, and have sexual “acting out” behaviors. Unlicensed programs, which don’t have licensed professionals, are not equipped to care for children with these problems, and her agency found there has been a lot of sexual contact between children, traumatizing them more.

“I think that as a state, this is not a First Amendment issue,” she said. “This isn’t about religion, this isn’t about prohibiting people’s expression of their religion or their ability to teach what they choose. This is really about protecting the safety of children.”

Problems at Pinehaven

Only one adjunct ministry program is currently operating without state oversight: Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch near St. Ignatius. But there have been at least two others — Ranch for Kids near Eureka and New Horizons Youth Ranch near Rexford, which closed last year — that operated as unlicensed religious programs in the last eight years.

The religious exemption was created at the request of Larsson, the former director of Pinehaven. The nonprofit program opened in the 1980s and has been operating without regulation ever since.

Pinehaven staff come to every legislative session to testify against eliminating the religious exemption. In 2015, Daniel Larsson, the new director and Robert Larsson’s grandson, said the program doesn’t use licensed counselors, but uses a “counseling model” they created. The program is not accredited, so the teachers are also not required to be certified.

“Our children that come and reside in our ranch have been usually through multiple psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and really this is the end of the road for them,” Larsson said in 2015. “So what we do at Pinehaven is we have a religious-based school with loving parents, and that’s what works at Pinehaven.”

It doesn't always work.

Law enforcement records show that in 1995, one student was found dead after running away and drinking brake fluid in a nearby RV. 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, according to the Missoulian report at the time.

In a telephone interview with the Missoulian, Bob 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 the last 10 years, law enforcement reports note 11 runaways, seven reports of abuse and one suicidal teen. None of the abuse reports was substantiated by law enforcement investigators.

A former Pinehaven staff member who requested anonymity told the Missoulian he believes the facility should be under state oversight, not because of its treatment of children, but because of what he called unsanitary ranching facilities and practices.

“Issues that should be corrected aren’t being corrected because nobody has any oversight,” he said “If you saw their operation, saw their meat handling, saw their storage places, their facilities for walk-in coolers, walk-in freezer, things that any other for-profit would have to fall in line with, they don’t have to. And there's nobody to make them.”

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Many children who are sent to the Ranch for Kids, like 16-year-old Zhenya Wood, in this 2012 file photo, come from failed adoptions and have been diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

He said the ranch currently is home to about 20 children, mostly from states around the Midwest. He described a behavior modification system similar to that used at other residential schools.

“If they really have a bad behavioral issue, then they go out and shovel manure,” the former employee said. “They do that until their behavior changes. It doesn't last that long, maybe three days. But that alone time gives them plenty of time to think. When they get tired of it, the question for them is ‘behave, or continue doing that?’ Most of them decide to behave.”

The program’s official policies urge staff not to find themselves alone with students to avoid being accused of inappropriate behavior.

“With the abominable sin of homosexuality so prevalent, it is also important that all contacts with those of the same sex be such as could never be even considered questionable,” the policies read.

Pinehaven's Daniel Larsson defended the exemption from religious programs in an interview with the Missoulian this month. "Part of the reason people came here from England was because the government was regulating religion, and the lack of freedom resulting from that."

If a legislator makes another run at removing the exemption, "we'll go and speak against it again," he said.

"Anytime government's in charge of the church, God isn't able to be the center of what we do."

Bob Larsson pointed out that, unlike the programs controlled by the state — some of which charge tens of thousands of dollars — Pinehaven does not charge tuition, nor does it accept government money.

Although he said "we never ask for money," Pinehaven's website says "Please prayerfully consider the possibility of a monetary gift to help Pinehaven continue, as God wills, to meet the needs of troubled and disadvantaged youth."

When reminded of that, Larsson amended his statement. "We absolutely could not do it without donations." 

Exemption debate

The religious exemption for licensure has irritated the PAARP board, whose members support closing the loophole every legislative session.

When PAARP board member Kelly spoke to the Legislature in 2013 about her previous experience working at unregulated programs in Montana, she told them the programs didn’t allow children unmonitored communication home, and expected them to lodge complaints with the program director if they had any.

“When complaints were made to the facility, they were either not taken seriously, or the victim was blamed because he or she suffered from mental illness, or the issues were simply swept under the rug,” she said.

Despite her testimony, legislators again rejected regulation of religious programs.

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In a recent interview, Kelly said her experience witnessing abuse at unlicensed programs prompted her to join the PAARP board. She said she saw too many kids humiliated or subjected to physical punishments in the name of "treatment.'' And the programs could get away with it because the students had mental or behavioral problems that made it easy to discount their stories.

"This is a problem for kids at all these schools,'' Kelly said. "'He is there for some behavioral issue, so he's not credible.' The stigma feeds the abuse.''

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The Ranch for Kids, shown here in February 2012, was ordered by a judge in 2013 to become licensed by the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs board, despite program owners' claims of a religious affiliation. It had operated without state oversight since 2010.

It is up to PAARP to decide whether a program fits the description for a religious exemption.

This process cost the board tens of thousands of dollars when it went to court against Ranch for Kids, which claimed to be exempt from licensure. A judge found it wasn’t, but in the meantime the Ranch operated for years without a license.

Another program also managed to avoid regulation by becoming affiliated with a church. New Horizons Youth Ranch in Rexford, which recently closed when the directors retired, was a program for boys ages 12-17 with ADHD, drug problems, self-esteem issues and fetal alcohol syndrome.

It was initially licensed by PAARP in 2010. An inspection that year found that no staff were professionally certified or licensed except one teacher; the program had no building permits and the facilities had not been inspected by the fire marshal.

New Horizons remained licensed until 2012, when it became an adjunct ministry of Youth With a Mission (YWAM) on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Two years later, YWAM stopped affiliating with non-YWAM programs, and informed New Horizons director Tom Harrell in 2014 that he would have to find another ministry, according to Department of Labor and Industry documents.

Harrell’s program remained unlicensed and unregulated for two more years, until 2016, when he was forced to apply for relicensure from the PAARP board. Another PAARP inspection from that year found the property had still not been inspected by the fire marshal, and a new building on the property appeared to have been built by the minor boys enrolled in the program.

Department of Labor inspectors wrote that the building had “glaring substandard carpentry work, bare electrical wiring, and questionable plumbing.”

The inspection also found there were no individual treatment plans for the boys in the program, no professional staff certifications, no CPR training for staff, no evidence of personnel background checks and no passive restraint training for staff. The kids were away on a field trip during the inspection, so inspectors couldn’t interview them about their experiences.

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In this 2012 Missoulian file photo, teacher Marietta Pereslete works with 10-year-old Vladimir on a math lesson at the Ranch for Kids school, where most children come from failed overseas adoptions.

The Bible was a core tenet of New Horizons, and boys read the Bible together every morning, went to church every Sunday, and spent an hour reading the Bible on their own every week. They were required to memorize scripture, and the program’s philosophy is based on Jeremiah 29:11:

“For I know the plans I have for you,'' declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

When the PAARP board received its inspection findings, it asked New Horizons to correct the issues to receive a license. Several months later, in April 2017, New Horizons withdrew its application and the board received a letter stating New Horizons had become an adjunct ministry of Yellowstone District Pentecostal Church, putting it out of reach of state regulators.

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Pinehaven Christian Children's Ranch participants have reported abuse at the program outside St. Ignatius for years, although few accounts have been substantiated by law enforcement. In 2012, director Bob Larsson told CNN "Satan" was the source of abuse allegations against his program.

Former state Rep. Paul Clark, a Trout Creek Democrat who until last year ran his own residential program, Galena Ridge, brought the original bill that established state regulation of programs for troubled teens.

"I was not in favor of the religious exemption," Clark said in an interview this month. "The only reason that got in there was they weren't going to pass the bill without it. That comes from the political right, the people that are very, very concerned about their religious (beliefs) and how they express religion.

"I wasn't in favor of that, but I had to live with it."

Cameron Evans, Seaborn Larson and Gwen Florio of the Missoulian contributed to this story.

Tomorrow: Isolation, physical punishments can harm already troubled kids

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