The Montana Department of Labor and Industry has opened an investigation into a residential teen treatment program near Eureka after the Missoulian inquired about its claim that it was licensed.
On its website, Turning Point Behavioral Academy For Boys claims to be a “licensed 12-18 month therapeutic boarding school” for boys as young as 8 who struggle with issues such as anger, depression, failing grades or lying.
But DLI spokeswoman Erin Loranger told the Missoulian late Wednesday Turning Point Behavioral Academy is not licensed through the state agency, which currently oversees such programs, and that the department was unaware of the program’s existence before the Missoulian’s inquiry.
The DLI investigation will look to determine if Turning Point is operating without a license or if it is attached to a religious ministry and thus outside of the labor department's jurisdiction, Loranger said. A loophole in Montana law allows religious programs to operate with no oversight, despite repeated attempts in the Legislature to close it. This session, HB222 sponsored by Rep. Zac Perry, a Hungry Horse Democrat, seeks to end the exemption.
One of Turning Point's owners is a youth pastor at a Eureka church, Chapel of Praise, although the licensure claim remains in question.
Records from the Montana Secretary of State’s Office show Turning Point registered as a business with the state in July 2018. Internet records from Whois.net show the website was registered in the same month.
Repeated calls and an email to Turning Point were not returned. When contacted by email, one of the owners told the Missoulian they were unavailable for comment due to a previously scheduled parenting workshop.
Like many residential teen treatment programs before it, Turning Point is run by former employees of once-embattled programs. The web of relationships tangles quickly:
- Oscar Sanchez, the youth minister listed on the website as the owner, was recently on staff at New Horizons, a different all-boys program located just across Lake Koocanusa near Eureka.
- New Horizons, according to Secretary of State records, had dissolved by late 2018. Loranger said DLI didn’t know why New Horizons closed, but said the program had applied for re-licensure as recently as 2016. However, it withdrew that application after it was able to establish an affiliation with a church in Montana, giving itself the religious exemption allowed by state law.
- New Horizons opened in 1999 as a therapeutic wilderness and ranch program for troubled teens. Its director was Larry Nicholas, who serves as president for Youth With a Mission Tribal Wave in Ronan, a missionary outfit. Nicholas’ connection would later be important to New Horizons because it gave the program an established ministry with which to affiliate.
- The connections between New Horizons and Turning Point Behavioral Academy also extend to a third program, Gateway Freedom Ranch, also located near Eureka.
- Gateway Freedom Ranch broke off from New Horizons in 2014 to become the girls-only program, while New Horizons proceeded to serve boys. That year, Nicholas served as director for both programs. The next year, Nicholas was no longer with New Horizons, and became vice president at Gateway Freedom Ranch.
- The year after that, memos submitted to DLI and obtained by the Missoulian show Nicholas, in his capacity as president of Youth With a Mission, had severed New Horizons’ religious affiliation, leaving the program to scramble for a new affiliation.
- By 2017, New Horizons had obtained that affiliation, this time with the Yellowstone District Pentecostal Church. The program closed the next year.
Business records with the Secretary of State show New Horizons owner Tom Harrell had sometimes failed to submit annual reports to the state. On four occasions between 2005 and 2016, the Secretary of State threatened to involuntarily dissolve New Horizons if it didn’t submit its filings. Several of those filings show Lisa Marek was the director at New Horizons. She is now the director at Gateway Freedom Ranch; DLI records show she is also the owner.
Another owner at Gateway, according to DLI records from 2014, is Curt McDuffie, who is a senior pastor at Chapel of Praise church in Eureka. His youth pastor at Chapel of Praise is Sanchez, the new owner at Turning Point Ranch. The two programs also share a licensed clinical professional counselor, Todd Call, who is listed on both Gateway's and Turning Point's websites as a therapist and consultant.
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McDuffie disputed his placement on the program's application as an owner, and provided the Missoulian with documents from the Secretary of State's Office that do not list his name among the directors and officers atop the program.
Although Gateway Freedom Ranch touts itself as a Christian safe haven for struggling girls, it has obtained a license through the state. The school accepts girls ages 9-14. Marek was not available for comment.
Sanchez certainly isn't the first person to open a new program after former employers came under regulatory pressure or shut down. Last year Michael Morso opened Petty Creek Ranch after leaving Triangle Cross Ranch in Wyoming, where the health department there sued the program, claiming it was operating without a license.
Michele "Mickey" Manning was once principal of Spring Creek Ranch, which closed following a lawsuit spurred by a 16-year-old girl's suicide and thorough documentation of other troubling issues at the program. Manning now runs Reflections Academy, which has been sued three times since October for allegedly failing to protect the girls in the program from an employee's purported sexual grooming and abuse.
It remains unclear why New Horizons closed its doors last year. When a caller identified himself to Harrell, the former owner, as a Missoulian reporter, Harrell simply said “no,” and hung up.
"That's the whole problem," Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said Thursday. "That's why this whole process (legislation to more strictly regulate the programs) is necessary. We have these organizations just floating around under the radar and we have no idea what they're doing, what kind of conditions they have, and what type of treatment the kids attending these programs are receiving.
"All we want to do to is make sure that everyone is being safe," he said.
Under current state code, programs operating in affiliation with a church ministry don't have to identify themselves with the state. The state labor department asks for documentation proving that affiliation if there is a question of operating without a proper license, Loranger said.
Sparked by an investigative series by the Missoulian, the state may shift its oversight of these private teen treatment programs from the labor department, which oversees no other industry like it, to the public health department, which has oversight of more than 70 children’s facilities, from local Boys and Girls clubs to Shodair Hospital in Helena.
Critics of the proposal have argued that the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is already too burdened to take on any further duties. But chief legal counsel for the labor department Judy Bovington told a legislative committee last month it had not done “the best job” overseeing the troubled teen industry in Montana.
That measure, Senate Bill 267 carried by Missoula Democrat Sen. Diane Sands, cleared the Senate this week on a 35-14 vote on its way to the House.