Last week the Missoulian published a series of news stories about private residential treatment programs for children — mostly teenagers — in Montana.
As this series shows in tragic detail, it is long past time for the state to enact meaningful regulation of these programs. The experiment in which these programs were essentially allowed to regulate themselves has clearly failed.
It’s important to note that some of these treatment programs have helped a lot of troubled kids turn their lives around. Over the past week, the Missoulian has heard from a handful of these former students and parents wanting to share their personal stories and emphasize their very positive experiences.
Undeniably, there is a place for these programs in Montana. Their good work should be encouraged. But it would be irresponsible to ignore that there have also been some troubling practices that have resulted in very negative outcomes as well, from suicide and sexual assault to post-traumatic stress disorder and lasting trauma. Regardless of the methods used by any program in Montana, they are all allowed to operate with little to no transparency to the public or even to parents. That has to change.
The current system allows problematic residential treatment facilities to shut down when complaints pour in, only to open again in a new place under a new name. It allows serious problems to slip through the cracks, with no accountability, and ultimately tarnishes the reputation of all private treatment programs in Montana. This must stop.
The Montana Legislature is faced with two bills this session that would address two gaping loopholes in the state’s ability to oversee these programs. It’s up to Montana to tackle this issue on its own because there are virtually no federal regulations in place, despite repeated attempts to pass legislation through the U.S. Congress.
LC2664, requested by Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, is a draft bill aimed at protecting vulnerable people from sexual predators, specifically providing that participants in private alternative adolescent programs cannot consent to sex with program employees. This is important because under Montana law, the legal age of consent is 16. It should be against the law for any adult holding such a strong position of power and trust to have sex with a teen resident. Loge’s bill must advance through the Legislature and be signed into law. There is no good reason to oppose it.
Another proposal, House Bill 222, would eliminate the licensing exemptions for alternative adolescent treatment programs affiliated with religious organizations. The bill, requested by Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, and sponsored by Rep. Zac Perry, D-Hungry Horse, is currently awaiting action in the House Judiciary Committee. Morigeau points out that his own grandmother was abused at a mission school in St. Ignatius where a lawsuit revealed clergy were routinely assigned after getting caught sexually abusing children.
The Montana Division of Child and Family Services has recorded multiple, ongoing, proven reports of abuse at religious treatment programs — but has no enforcement authority over them. In 2015, former CFS Director Sarah Corbally told state legislators the agency had tallied more than 30 reports of abuse and neglect at unlicensed facilities over the previous five years and could do nothing about it.
Despite this compelling testimony, Montana’s lawmakers chose not to do anything about it, either. Montanans must demand they act on this legislation at last. They can remind their representatives and senators of specific cases, such as Pinehaven Christian Ranch for Kids, which has opposed state oversight in previous legislative sessions, and which itself saw a former teacher sentenced to prison for sexual intercourse without consent in 2005 after assaulting two teenage girls in the program.
Montana should be able to discipline programs with lax procedures or loose policies that allow this to happen. There should be a process for students in these programs and their parents to file credible complaints, and have those complaints thoroughly and publicly investigated.
Montana does not yet have such a system. Right now, complaints are fielded by a board that is, inexplicably, housed under the state Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees no other enterprises even remotely similar to alternative residential treatment programs for adolescents. Indeed, the department has supported bills to transfer oversight to another agency, and the Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services has previously requested that it be given this responsibility.
Further, the board in charge of investigating any complaints is stacked with industry insiders — three of the five board members run treatment centers. Thus, the oversight board, called the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Program (PAARP), has never meted out a sanction to any program throughout its dozen years of existence, despite having received nearly five dozen complaints.
Worse, every one of those complaints is kept a secret. They remain unavailable for public review unless the board takes disciplinary action — and it has never taken significant action.
The Montana Department of Labor and Industry is the wrong agency to oversee these programs. And the board that investigates complaints should not consist of a majority of members who run the very businesses they are supposed to investigate. It should be expanded to include members with expertise in child education, adolescent behavioral problems and treatment.
The board also should not grant licenses to any program that has not passed a thorough inspection. Parents who pay great sums of money to send their children to these facilities may be lulled into a false sense of security by these licenses, when in reality, inspections are few and far between — and all too often, entirely perfunctory.
At a minimum, treatment programs should be required to share the results of criminal background checks of workers with the public. And unlicensed employees with no training should not be allowed to care for teens with sometimes serious disorders.
Montana can no longer turn a blind eye to these lapses. Too many children already have paid the price. It’s time, finally, to repair this troubled system for troubled kids.