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Missoulian editorial

To protect kids, Montana must end religious exemption

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Ranch for Kids July 2019

The state health department removed all 27 children from the Ranch for Kids in Rexford on July 23 following allegations of abuse and neglect.

Montanans might be forgiven for assuming that all the troubled youth in private residential treatment programs in our state are receiving top-notch care. Their parents, after all, often pay a small fortune to enroll their teens in these programs — as much as $100,000 a year in some cases — and until recently, Montana had a regulatory framework that provided little more than the appearance of some official oversight, given that the majority of the regulatory board came from the programs themselves.

To be sure, there are some excellent programs providing quality treatment while keeping their students safe and healthy. Unfortunately, there are also less reputable programs piggybacking on the good reputation built by successful programs. And it wasn’t until just this month, on July 1, that the state’s regulatory system finally ensured basic health and safety for every student in deed and not just words, thanks to new laws passed during this year’s legislative session.

Several lawmakers crafted a small number of proposals to finally — after years of heartbreaking stories stacking up and concerned advocates pushing for improvements but getting nowhere — reform this troubled system. They managed to pass two critically important laws. However, Montana failed to close one gaping loophole: the religious exemption that allows programs claiming an affiliation with a religious organization to operate without oversight.

Last week, in a stunning move, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services suspended the license of the Ranch for Kids near Rexford in Lincoln County, and removed all 27 children from the facility. This admittedly extreme action was taken after the department received multiple credible reports of serious physical and psychological abuse and medical neglect.

The program’s executive director disputes these claims and the state’s action. An investigation will delve into the allegations; in the meantime, the kids are in a safe and therapeutically appropriate place and their families have been notified.

The Ranch for Kids has a troubling history. Under Montana’s old system, it was licensed by the Department of Labor and Industry in 2006. It operated without any state oversight for three years, and eventually was relicensed after it tried to avoid regulation by claiming a religious exemption.

It does not employ certified therapists — its executive director has no background in child psychology — but instead allowed parents to pay extra to contract with a local therapist. It was the subject of at least 10 complaints over the past decade, but never received any significant sanctions.

Missoulian reporters who spoke with Rexford residents, former students and staff members heard concerns ranging from poor supervision to policies and practices that further traumatized the youth in the program by placing them in isolation or forcing them on excessively long walks — up to 22 miles — as punishment for bad behavior.

The Ranch for Kids is not the only program with a worrisome history. Before the Legislature took action, DPHHS had no authority to shut down facilities even in the case of the most severe violations. The entity formerly responsible for such oversight received at least 58 complaints, and not once meted out a single meaningful consequence, let alone suspended a program license.

After an intensive months-long investigation involving multiple reporters and editors, the Missoulian published a series, “Troubled Kids, Troubled System,” exploring this broken system in detail. Within the next few weeks, the Montana Legislature took action. Missoula Sen. Diane Sands sponsored the bill to finally transfer oversight of these programs from the Department of Labor to DPHHS. St. Regis Rep. Denley Loge sponsored the bill that finally made it illegal for program staff to have sex with the vulnerable youth in their care, even if those youths are older than 16, the age of consent in Montana.

Unfortunately, a bill sponsored by Hungry Horse Rep. Zac Perry to remove the religious exemption was tabled by the House Judiciary Committee. Missoula Rep. Ellie Hill Smith had tried to pass a similar bill in the previous session, only to see it go nowhere after the head of the Montana Family Foundation and staff from the Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch spoke against it.

This means that right now, the state still has no oversight authority over programs that claim a religious affiliation.

If most Montanans trust that private treatment programs for youth are well-regulated, it’s a safe bet that residents have even more faith in programs guided by higher convictions. But even faith-based programs can have serious problems.

Pinehaven, for one, has seen nearly a dozen reports of runaways and one suicidal teen, as well as seven unsubstantiated reports of abuse. That’s a relatively small number of complaints compared to the size of the program. As one of the largest programs of its kind in Montana, the facility located in St. Ignatius handles up to 100 children at a time.

However, most concerning was the conviction, in 2005, of a former staff member for raping two girls in the program. At the sentencing, a co-worker testified that the rapist was hired without training and was unprepared for the “temptations” of the job. Hopefully Pinehaven provides such training now. It’s not required as a condition of licensing, because the program is exempt from state regulation.

The only reason the Ranch for Kids is not exempt is because its religious affiliation was challenged in 2011 after it was discovered that the Epicenter International Missions Ministry lacked a congregation, clergy or even a building, and in 2013 a judge ruled that it had to obtain a license or shut down.

Montana’s faith-based programs should absolutely be granted the freedom and flexibility they need to operate in accordance with their religious tenets. But they should not be free to abuse or neglect the kids in their care, and they should not be allowed to use faith as a cover for poor practices.

We all share a duty to these children to see that they are protected from harm. Many of them have already experienced unspeakable trauma, and need special help to heal from it.

The programs promising to provide this healing have an obligation to provide a higher level of care — an obligation that some have clearly failed.

Montanans should accept no excuse for failing these children. We should tolerate no exceptions from accountability. And we should put an immediate end to any special exemptions.

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