Many issues become lightning rods for partisan politics during the legislature. The safety of our children should not be one of them.

A recent series in the Missoulian titled “Troubled kids, troubled system” unearthed a multitude of problems from health concerns to mistreatment and abuses of children attending what are called “Private Alternative Adolescent Residential Outdoor Programs,” or PAARPs.

Scrutiny of more than a dozen PAARPs resulted in shocking discoveries: Staff without certifications or licensing. No individual treatment plans for the students. No CPR training for staff. No evidence of personnel background checks. No passive restraint training. No building permits. Bare electrical wiring. Questionable plumbing. Facilities not inspected by the fire marshal.

But most concerning are the several reports of sexual abuse, self-harm and even suicide by adolescent PAARP residents.

One of the more concerning aspects of the current PAARP system is the private oversight of programs. The Private Adolescent Alternative Residential or Outdoor Programs Board has been described as “the fox guarding the hen house” — three of five board members have a vested business interest in PAARPs in Montana. This left many questioning if the lack of responsive action to complaints was due to a conflict of interest.

That is why it is so important that the 2019 legislature successfully passed Senate Bill 267, sponsored by Sen. Diane Sands, which moves oversight for “health and safety” to the Department of Public Health and Human Services. No longer will the people who financially benefit from PAARPs have full regulatory authority over the programs.

The successful passage of this legislation was the result of many months and years of hard work. What made the difference this year was the sheer amount of powerful and emotional testimony from former program residents, parents and former staff. The heartbreaking stories shared left the legislature no choice but to act. We thank all who came forward for their courage in sharing their stories.

SB 267 was just one bill of several legislative efforts seeking to address the issues surrounding PAARPs. Another successful measure was House Bill 282, sponsored by Rep. Denley Loge, which prohibits employees of PAARPs from engaging in sexual or romantic relationships with residents receiving psychotherapy.

Another important bill that failed to pass was House Bill 222, sponsored by Rep. Zac Perry. This measure would have addressed the religious exemption that PAARPs benefit from or hide behind, an exemption directly linked to the problematic lack of regulations and accountability at these institutions.

Unfortunately, politics got in the way of progress, and HB 222 failed on party lines. But the work isn’t over. Democrats will continue to fight to ensure that facilities and institutions that oversee the safety of our children are held accountable.

We are both proud to have worked on the issues surrounding PAARPs and are grateful that we moved one step forward to protect the safety of children in these facilities. Thank you to all of those who joined us in this fight.

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Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, represents Senate District 49 and Rep. Zac Perry, D-Hungry Horse, represents House District 3 in the Montana Legislature.

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