Western Montana has long been home to private businesses catering to families with troubled youth. Some of the operators of these for-profit treatment programs have taken advantage of the state’s lax regulatory system to cut corners, providing substandard care and subjecting the teens in their care to neglect and abuse, all while raking in thousands of dollars from desperate parents.
Thanks to a seismic push from the public, parents and even former program participants themselves, earlier this year Montana’s Legislature finally passed long-overdue reforms that promise to close some of the biggest loopholes in the state’s regulatory safety net.
On July 1, the board responsible for overseeing these programs was dissolved and regulatory responsibility was officially transferred from the Department of Labor to the Department of Public Health and Human Services. And just this month, after working with program managers and hearing from the public, DPHHS rolled out its new rules.
Hopes are high that the new licensing procedures and requirements will provide the kind of accountability that was missing from Montana’s previous oversight system. Fortunately, the new framework provides a greater degree of transparency as well as a more effective complaint process.
Previously, it was up to the Labor Department to maintain a licensing system that held programs to basic standards. But the Labor Department handles no other businesses that specialize in child mental health or adolescent development, and was unable to hold noncompliant programs accountable for poor treatment other than revoking a license or taking the owners to court.
Further, the five-member board that handled complaints was run primarily by individuals in charge of the same programs they were supposed to regulate, and was severely limited in its ability to respond to complaints. In fact, a Missoulian series of news investigations launched in January found that over the course of at least a dozen years, and despite receiving 58 complaints, the board did not mete out a single significant sanction. These complaints, it’s important to note, were not shared with the public. The board only made them public if they resulted in a disciplinary action, and as noted above, no disciplinary action was ever taken.
So parents researching programs for their children would have no way of knowing if a particular program was the subject of repeated complaints, or what kind of complaints. Poor sanitation? Buildings not up to code? The state of Montana did not share this information.
Meanwhile, programs were not required to provide any way for their participants to sound the alarm if they saw or experienced mistreatment. Instead, serious cases of abuse could be reported to, and handled by, local law enforcement authorities. Parents of mistreated program participants could, and did, sue. And the owners and administrators of programs that fell under scrutiny could simply shut down, move to a new location and open a new program under a new name.
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But now, Montana DPHHS has taken over the duty of ensuring the health, safety and welfare of kids and teens in private residential programs. It will receive complaints, conduct inspections and investigations, and take action when programs fall short.
Indeed, it has already acted. Shortly after taking over from the Labor Department, DPHHS personnel removed 27 children from the Ranch for Kids outside Rexford in Lincoln County. Working with law enforcement, and acting on an order from the Lincoln County district Court, the agency removed the children, ages 11 to 17, and began working to reunite them with their families.
DPHHS says it received multiple reports of physical abuse and “excessive discipline,” such as withholding food and prolonged isolation, although the program owners dispute these claims. The Ranch for Kids had been the subject of complaints for years previously. In September 2017, the parents of a former program attendee filed a complaint alleging that the program abused their child and other child participants both physically and emotionally. On May 17 of this year, the Labor Department proposed taking action.
The unprecedented step of shutting down an alternative treatment program was ultimately taken this past July, just weeks after DPHHS assumed oversight.
The new rules specify that program operators are required to submit background checks for employees who work directly with the kids in their care. They are prohibited from using physical punishment or prolonged isolation to manage behavior. And they must maintain a written policy that lists the rights of their participants.
Another key rule requires programs to follow a new process for reporting abuse and neglect. Montana has a hotline to field such reports, and program participants have a recognized right to use the hotline.
Many of those who read the Missoulian series titled “Troubled Kids, Troubled System” were shocked to learn that some programs routinely denied the youth in their care the ability to contact their parents for weeks, sometimes months at a time. Thankfully, Montana’s new rules specify that programs are required to allow contact between participants and parents at least once a week.
While some program owners have objected to some of the new rules, the best programs in Montana already have most of these procedures in place. The new state requirements will prevent less reputable operators from merely piggybacking on the good reputations earned by those better programs, and ensure that they do in fact meet the same minimum standards.
Now, it’s up to all Montanans to keep their eyes open to ensure the new regulations are working the way they’re supposed to, and so that further improvements can be identified and implemented.