Warner Rodriguez testifes in support of Senate Bill 267

Warner Rodriguez testifies in support of Senate Bill 267, which would eliminate the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Program board that currently oversees the programs, and move regulation to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Warner Rodriguez is brave. He recently testified at a public hearing in Helena, giving an emotional account of his personal experience as a former student of a private residential treatment program for troubled teens. At times in tears, he talked about the humiliation he witnessed and the trauma he endured in a bid to convince state legislators to support a bill that would at long last provide meaningful regulation of these programs.

In stark contrast to Rodriguez’s courageous testimony, the still-unidentified owners of one of these programs pulled Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, aside on a recent Sunday evening. Rather than make a case in public, where it could be discussed in depth and potentially rebutted, they had a private chat and convinced Brown to amend the bill to remove a requirement that the programs develop minimum health and safety standards, which he promptly did the very next day.

That’s the kind of backroom dealing that foments distrust in our legislative system. The full measure of public disgust ought to fall on legislators such as Brown who allow these private meetings to take the place of public debate, and who allow public policy to be written by people in positions of power concerned only with protecting their own special interests. Unbelievably, Brown still refuses even to name the people he met with whose arguments he found so convincing.

This is no way to conduct public business. Legislators cannot be allowed to shirk their duty to represent constituents — all of them. That duty includes affording the people of Montana the opportunity to hear both sides of an argument, to know who is behind those arguments and to contribute their own perspective. Brown’s actions denied them this.

He certainly isn’t the first or only legislator to have his ear bent in a private meeting. But this particular meeting was particularly egregious because the owners of residential programs have been notably quiet on proposed legislation in public — and because the need for meaningful legislative reform is long overdue.

Senate Bill 267, sponsored by Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, and carried in the House by Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, contains several important reforms, but its most significant would terminate the Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP) under the Department of Labor and Industry, and give the Montana Department of Health and Human Services responsibility to overseeing the programs. Last week, it passed from the House on a vote of 77-22, and was returned to the Senate for final action.

But first, Brown and Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, amended the bill into a version program owners apparently won’t find too objectionable, without regard for the hundreds of teens left at risk. Buttrey’s amendment removed a perfectly reasonable requirement that program employees working with vulnerable youth have “suitability, credentials, training, experience and other qualifications.”

Program owners have successfully thwarted many previous attempts over the years to make their industry more transparent and accountable to the public. So far this session, they helped kill a bill that would have eliminated the so-called “religious exemption” that allows programs claiming a religious affiliation to avoid state oversight, including health and safety regulations.

Despite the disappointing amendments made in the House, SB 267 bill is still worth legislators’ approval, and desperately needed. Currently, the majority of the five-member board charged with regulating these programs are program owners themselves. Unsurprisingly, they have never handed down meaningful consequences in response to complaints against any program, and have operated almost entirely outside the public eye.

Shifting oversight to an independent agency promises to go a long way toward improving this travesty.

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