A leader of Montana's largest private residential program for troubled teens said Friday he's open to changes such as increased oversight, more transparency and a swift response to complaints against programs operating in Montana.
John Santa, co-founder of Montana Academy and chair of the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Program (PAARP) board, said he supports such moves, although noted he was speaking only for himself and not the board.
Several weaknesses in state oversight of private, for-profit programs treating sometimes out-of-control teens were brought to light in the Missoulian's recent series, "Troubled Kids, Troubled System."
The five-member PAARP board oversees 14 programs clustered in western Montana. Three of its members come from the programs themselves, while two are from the public. The Missoulian series found no significant discipline against any program resulted from the 58 complaints investigated in the 12 years of PAARP’s oversight.
"Anything that would increase the transparency in the way we operate, I would be fine with," Santa said Friday.
On Thursday, Santa told the Missoulian's editorial page editor that he would support flipping the board's ratio so members of the public would hold the majority of seats.
On Friday, though, Santa told a reporter he'd "have no trouble" with adding another public member to evenly balance the board's membership. But giving the public a majority of the board's seats, he said, could be problematic because the public members could push to abolish the board altogether.
He said that to even out representation, however, could reinforce the board's credibility.
Santa reinforced that he and the PAARP board, which is housed in the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, continue to support legislation to close the regulatory loophole for programs with religious affiliations. Under the current state law, religious programs can operate completely without state oversight.
"I think any program that treats children or minors should have some regulatory authority that oversees them," Santa said.
The proposed change has come before the state Legislature each year since a licensing mechanism for residential treatment programs for troubled youths went into effect in 2007. Each year, the bill has died in committee following testimony from religious program leaders and lobbyists calling for separation of church and state.
Santa said there would be no effort to alter religious practices at the schools; the aim is to ensure programs abide by a set of safety standards.
"There's nothing in the regulations of the PAARP board that would interfere with any kind of religious teachings or doctrines," he said. "We would not interfere with anything of the religious practice unless they impose a risk of safety for children."
In one case, the board pursued litigation against a program, Ranch for Kids outside Eureka, for falsely claiming a religious affiliation. After the costly effort by the PAARP board, Ranch for Kids is now licensed by the state.
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This year's bill to close the religious loophole, HB222, was requested by Rep. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula and carried by Zac Perry, a Democrat from Hungry Horse. Morigeau and Perry told the Missoulian their confidence in the bill was bolstered by Santa's support to eliminate the religious exemption.
"From my standpoint, it signals that it's the right thing to do, that it's the common-sense thing to do," Perry said. "It's clear that we're looking at putting the health and safety of some of the most vulnerable children in Montana first, making that a priority."
"I think this issue has gotten bogged down in red herrings," Morigeau said. "I just want to make sure and know that kids are safe when they're in your program, that they're not being taken advantage of."
Santa also said moving the PAARP board under the state Department of Public Health and Human Services — as was originally proposed when the Legislature created the board — may even be "advantageous."
"It might be a better fit," he said of DPHHS, "if they're willing work with us, making sure we're understood on the real needs we have (regarding) the level of care that we provide."
One issue Santa hopes to resolve swiftly is the background check process for employees at the programs. Currently, programs fingerprint new employees and submit them to the PAARP board, which turns them over to the Department of Justice. But after that, Santa said, there's no information coming back to the board or the programs unless an employee doesn't pass the background check. In other words, the programs, the board and DOJ are in separate silos when it comes to background check information on program employees.
"We have a record of sending them in, but that's all we have," he said. "But we're trying to get that cleared up."
Additionally, Santa said the board's response to complaints against programs could be more swift, another change he hopes to see installed soon.
"We need to improve how, administratively, we respond to complaints," he said. "That's an issue we're going to take up. We need to be more responsive when complaints are made."
Over the years, in programs for which PAARP has oversight, inspections have turned up housing built and inhabited by teenagers that doesn't meet building codes; programs without background checks in personnel files; and administrators operating outside of their submitted program plans. While stipulations are signed with the board as a result of those complaints, no significant discipline has fallen on the programs and the stipulations have remained secret.
Santa contended the board has exercised its duty in reining in programs that are operating in violation of state code. He said the PAARP board and the Department of Labor and Industry can do nothing other than revoke licenses or take programs to court. Other issues, he said, are up to the civil courts to correct.
He did say, however, that transparency could also be improved in how the board operates. Under law, complaints made against programs or individuals are private unless substantiated by the board's screening panel. As with the PAARP board, the screening panel's makeup consists of a majority of people from the programs it regulates.
"We have to have a way to say, yes, we are addressing these things, but we also have to maintain privacy," he said. Otherwise, unfounded complaints can be lobbed at programs and individuals to cause undue harm. "I do want to look at the issues of making the board more efficient about handling complaints and making them transparent, to a reasonable point."