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Ranch for Kids file

The Ranch for Kids, shown here in a 2012 file photo.

Before July 1, even the most serious reports of suspected abuse at one of the private treatment centers catering to troubled youth in Montana would more than likely have been met with silence.

The state board tasked with regulating such facilities did not handle such matters, did not make complaints public and in any case, rarely if ever punished a facility for substantiated violations. At best, local law enforcement could make an arrest — and the program could continue with business as usual.

Today, that’s no longer the case — as demonstrated early Tuesday morning with the extraordinary and unprecedented removal  of 27 children from the Ranch for Kids in Lincoln County, and the suspension of the program’s license by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. These actions were taken in response to multiple credible reports of abuse and neglect involving students at the facility.

These reports will now be thoroughly investigated. Justice will be served. And those kids will be safe.

There are many people to thank for that.

First and foremost, the former students and parents with direct experience of these programs deserve every Montanan’s gratitude for sharing their painful, personal stories. Their willingness to talk about the problems they witnessed or experienced and their lasting effects made the Missoulian’s investigative series “Troubled Kids, Troubled System” possible — and helped draw attention to efforts to change that system.

“If it were not for the Missoulian, the series, we would not have been able to pass that legislation,” Missoula Sen. Diane Sands told the Missoulian editorial board Wednesday. “We have tried it many times before, and failed, and what really made the difference was hearing those stories.”

She noted that several state legislators have been working for years, through many sessions, to enact meaningful reforms.

They all should get a round of applause, with a standing ovation for Sands, who worked with other state lawmakers — notably Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, and Rep. Zac Perry, D-Hungry Horse — to push forward legislation that at last ended the state’s dysfunctional oversight process and transferred that authority to the state DPHHS.

“It’s an incredible relief to know that those young people who have such difficult backgrounds already are not going to be in a situation where they are subjected to continued mistreatment,” Sands continued. “They already have enough problems. They need competent help. We don’t tolerate that kind of treatment of young people who have already had enough misery in their life.”

She went on to acknowledge that while there is still work to be done, she is pleased with DPHHS’ handling of the reports against the Ranch for Kids, and hopes it puts other facilities on notice that any mistreatment of students in their care will not be tolerated.

Indeed, the department moved swiftly, just weeks after assuming its new oversight duties, to respond to these reports with meaningful action. That’s a credit to an agency often accused of being bogged down with cumbersome bureaucracy.

“As long as the department has the power to regulate for health and safety, they have the power to stop these kinds of (reported) abuses and we intend to continue to see that is exactly what they do,” Sands said.

She also pointed out that the department was only able to take action because it had received multiple reports of abuse and neglect from a number of people, and they should be commended for speaking up and sharing their concerns. DPHHS is encouraging others with information about the Ranch to Kids to call a special it set up recently (see info box included with this editorial).

When Montana finally passed legislation to put some teeth in its regulatory system for these private programs, it took an important step toward closing a gaping loophole that allowed potential abuses to continue unchecked. But more steps remain.

This Sunday’s Missoulian editorial will explore those next steps — and call attention to the biggest remaining tear in Montana’s safety net.

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