Montana legislators must unite to protect troubled youth

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Unfortunately, just because a legislative proposal would correct a thoroughly documented problem, has strong support and virtually no opposition doesn’t guarantee it will survive the Montana Legislature.

But whenever a handful of legislators nearly succeed in killing a badly needed bill, Montanans must demand a good explanation.

Senate Bill 267, sponsored by Sen. Diane Sands, a Missoula Democrat, at the request of Rep. Zac Perry, D-Hungry Horse, is the legislation that would finally create some accountability and bring real oversight to alternative programs that promise to treat troubled youth. As a recent Missoulian investigative series showed in abundant detail, these programs are licensed in the state of Montana under a system that cursory inspection system, and complaints never result in significant corrective action. The state-appointed board is stacked with people who run the same programs they are supposed to oversee, and operates with almost no transparency.

Sands’ legislation would dismantle the board and shift the responsibility for inspecting, licensing and reprimanding alternative treatment programs to the state agency with the most experience and expertise in overseeing similar youth programs: the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

DPHHS has testified in support of the bill. Even members of the board that would be disbanded have spoken in favor of the bill. Indeed, no one has publicly testified against it.

Yet five legislators on the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee nearly succeeded in tabling the bill last month, which would have effectively killed it for the session. And even after two legislators changed their votes to allow the bill out of committee, three continued to oppose it: Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux; Sen. Cary Smith, R-Billings; and Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell voted against it by proxy.

The specious reasoning given for this opposition was that they worried about overtaxing the already heavily burdened DPHHS, and that they didn’t want to see DPHHS create new requirements that would unduly burden the programs. Apparently they would prefer to maintain the status quo that leaves vulnerable youth at risk.

Again, DPHHS administrators have testified that their agency is the most appropriate fit for these oversight duties, and that the agency is prepared to assume them. They further testified that no rule changes or new requirements would be made in the immediate future, allowing programs to continue operating under the same rules they have for years.

The critical difference is that DPHHS would actually hold these programs to these rules, adhering to well-established inspection and complaint processes. And because the heads of the programs would no longer be the ones responsible for overseeing this process, the system would be free at last from any conflict of interest. SB 267 now goes to the Senate floor for consideration.

Meanwhile, legislators on the House and Senate judiciary committees will hold hearings Friday, March 15, on two related bills.

House Bill 282, introduced by St. Regis Republican Rep. Denley Loge, passed the House with flying colors on its third reading and is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Hinebauch is a member of this committee. Let’s hope his ears and those of his fellow senators are open this time.

Only two legislators voted against the bill in the House: Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, and Rep. Greg DeVries, R-Jefferson City. It’s difficult to imagine what these two lawmakers found objectionable in the bill, which would make it a crime for workers in treatment programs to have sex with those receiving treatment. Under current law, youths older than the age of consent, which is 16, are legally considered fair game for sexual predators in a position of authority who seek to take advantage of the youth in their care.

The second bill, House Bill 222, would eliminate the exemption that allows treatment programs affiliated with a religious organization to operate with no oversight whatsoever. Introduced by Rep. Zac Perry, D-Hungry Horse, at the request of Missoula Democrat Rep. Shane Morigeau, HB 222 is sure to face opposition, as it has in the past, from the owners of these programs when it is heard Friday in the House Judiciary Committee.

During the 2017 legislative session, and in previous sessions, former Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, a Missoula Democrat, pushed for a similar proposal. Her bill garnered support from the Department of Labor and Industry, which currently is tasked with handling licensing for non-religious programs, despite the fact that it oversees no other businesses that deal with troubled youth. But it also attracted criticism from Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch and from the Montana Family Foundation.

Pinehaven, which is located near St. Ignatius, counts as a former director Robert Larsson, who requested the original religious exemption. It uses a program that is not accredited, and its teachers are not required to be certified. It has repeatedly been involved with law enforcement, with reports tallying 11 runaways, seven unsubstantiated reports of abuse and one suicidal teen over the past 10 years. In 2005, a former Pinehaven staff member was convicted of raping two girls in the program. A co-worker testified at his sentencing that he had not received proper training when he was hired.

Pinehaven, and other programs, continue to operate without state oversight thanks to this religious exemption.

The Montana Family Foundation need not worry that state oversight will interfere with any religious foundations of these programs. The rules are aimed at providing for the health, safety and welfare of program participants, who are mostly minors and who are often in programs far away from their parents, with minimal contact. And clearly, some basic level of oversight is needed to ensure that youth are safe while they receive treatment.

This must be the year that oversight is finally provided. Montana’s legislators ought to be able to agree on this at least.

— The Missoulian

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