Sanders County residential treatment program

Residential treatment programs for troubled youths are clustered in northwest Montana, specifically Sanders County, where the vast, sparsely populated region can provide a change of scenery for youths with emotional or behavioral issues. Their remote locations also provide a deterrent for those who may want to run away.

Legislation that would move oversight for residential programs for troubled teens away from a board some equate to the "fox guarding the henhouse" cleared a key vote in the Senate on Tuesday.

Sen. Diane Sands, a Democrat from Missoula, is carrying a bill that would eliminate the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Program (PAARP) board and move regulation of the residential, often outdoor-based programs to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The majority of the present PAARP board, by law, comprises administrators from the very programs the board regulates.

The bill, which was previously killed in a committee but resurrected at the end of last month, passed second reading in the Senate on a 34-15 vote Tuesday.

The Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees the board, said in a February hearing it had not done a good job of board oversight. Both the board and health department support the change and there was no opposition to the bill in that hearing.

After reviewing board records, the newspaper found cases where unlicensed counselors cared for children with serious mental, emotional and physical needs; claims of grooming and sexual abuse; and more. Most of the programs are for-profit operations that charge as much as $100,000 per year.

Of nearly 60 complaints about programs made to the board over a dozen years, none resulted in any significant consequences.

Sands said Tuesday the Legislature failed to properly regulate the programs more than a decade ago when it set up the board because a lawmaker was involved with one of the schools.

"Because a member of the Legislature was running one of these facilities, they agreed to allow them to create a private board on their own to regulate," Sands said. "It has not worked well. It has been ineffective in regulating itself."

The health department already licenses and inspects about 72 youth programs around Montana around the state, Sands said, making the change a better fit.

Those who objected to the bill said they had concerns about the ability of the health department to properly regulate the schools, citing in particular the way the department functions. 

"I wish I was compelled more here (that) this was some sort of solution," Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Republican from Stevensville, said of eliminating the board and moving oversight to the health department. "It's not right. We don't get good stuff out of there," he said of the health department.

Thomas pressed Sands for why oversight would be better under the health department. Sands pointed to the majority of board members — three of five — who operate the programs they are regulating.

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"Let me use the phrase 'the fox guarding the henhouse,'" Sands said. "They currently regulate themselves."

Sen. Jill Cohenour, a Democrat from East Helena, said moving regulation away from the board would create more transparency around the schools and give the Legislature more ability to look at the programs.

"Currently we don't have access to those complaints and that they've been dealt with by the board," Cohenour said.

Sands' bill is written so that the health department would implement rules the Department of Labor currently uses, and seek input on changes going forward.

The health department said Tuesday if the bill passes, it would anticipate mirrororing its current processes for responding to complaints and conducting inspections at youth facilities.

If no problems are found, the reason for a complaint would not be made public. However, the department would post online that a complaint was filed but with a "no deficiencies found" designation. That's common practice for the facilities the department now inspects.

For annual surveys or complaint investigations where problems are found, the results would be publicly posted, including details of any substantiated complaints. A response from the facility about how it would address the issues would also be posted.

The department already maintains a licensure portal and information would be available there.

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