Bad weather and a late start on a Friday didn’t discourage more than 60 people from packing into a Senate Public Health, Welfare & Safety committee hearing on Feb. 9 to give and listen to testimony on Senate Bill 288, which would regulate the state’s lucrative teen behavior-modification industry.
The overwhelming majority of people who testified in last week’s hearing urged the panel to pass Great Falls Sen. Trudi Schmidt’s bill, which would require the Montana Department of Labor and Industry to license and regulate the state’s 28 residential and outdoor teen programs.
“This bill should be the state’s top priority. If you care for children’s safety you should support this bill,” Elizabeth Iberti, a former student at the Chrysalis School in Eureka, told the panel.
In 2005 the Legislature passed a bill creating the Montana Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP). Later that year the five-member board—which includes three industry representatives—went to work examining the benefits of licensing such schools. Last summer the panel released a 64-page report recommending that the Legislature grant it another two years to continue considering registration and licensure.
Schmidt wasn’t satisfied with the board’s recommendations, so she responded by introducing SB 288.
About 75 percent of the 55 people who signed up to testify favored the measure.
Testimony carried on for more than two hours as a parade of psychologists, counselors, program directors, parents and students took turns at the podium. Groups from the Montana Advocacy Program to the Montana Mental Health Association came out in strong support of the bill, as did the Montana chapter of the American Psychiatric Association, the state labor department, the Montana Office of Public Instruction and MEA-MFT, the state teachers’ union.
Ken Stettler, director of the Utah Department of Human Services Office of Licensing, took the day off work and traveled to Helena at his own expense to testify on behalf of the bill. He told the committee that licensure is the only way the state can ensure consumer protection while also providing a safe environment for children.
“I can assure you that we provide an extremely valuable protective service to citizens of the state of Utah, and to citizens of other states that come into Utah to partake of these services,” Stettler told the panel. “The public places an expectation on government to protect, and to provide protections of basic health, safety, humanitarian care and treatment.”
Utah has had licensure and regulations in place since 1987, Stettler said, and as a result the state has been able to crack down on many abusive programs.
“You as legislators for the great state of Montana hold the key that can make a difference in the lives of children and vulnerable adults that receive services in these programs.”
Stettler urged the panel to pay close attention to supporters of SB 288, and to beware the opposition.
“Beware of those programs that oppose this legislation and decry the idea of regulation. If they had nothing to hide, they would not want to continue hiding it.”
The only programs on the record opposing the legislation were Spring Creek Lodge Academy of Thompson Falls and Monarch School of Heron.
Only two people verbally testified in opposition to the bill. The first was Gary Spaeth, a lobbyist for the Montana Alternative Adolescent Private Programs (MAAPP), an organization Spaeth said represents “between 10 and 12” programs operating in Montana (Spaeth couldn’t recall which Montana schools were members of MAAPP, nor could Patrick McKenna, director of Monarch School and the organization’s president).
“I appear here as an opponent of this particular bill, but a very light opponent,” Spaeth said, adding that he agreed “with everything that was said” in previous testimony. “We applaud this bill. We recognize the need in this state for licensure.”
Yet Spaeth expressed concern over the bill’s particulars, including its prohibition on the transfer or sale of licenses.
“We know that in many businesses, such as the liquor business and the solid waste disposal business, licenses are transferred,” Spaeth said.
That comment drew criticism from Sen. Kim Gillan of Billings.
“I don’t think, as you suggested, this is like you would transfer a license for solid waste or alcohol. I found that comment sort of a strange analogy given that we’re talking about children,” Gillan said.
Spaeth and McKenna also expressed concern about the makeup of the PAARP board under SB 288, which calls for expanding the size of the board from five members to nine and adding a psychologist, a physician, the superintendent of public instruction and the director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services. According to McKenna, having a lopsided number of board members who don’t represent the industry could stifle innovation at the expense of the teens in the programs.
“It puts a major majority into the hands of public officials, in which case then I don’t feel like the program voice is really going to be heard as well,” McKenna said.
But Sen. Carol Williams of Missoula thought McKenna’s concerns were unjustified.
“I think this bill goes a long way to making it so that it’s more transparent, there are more peopled involved in it, and it isn’t controlled by the industry or a few people in the industry or a few areas within the industry,” Williams said.
Sen. Jim Elliott of Trout Creek plans to introduce a competing bill, Spaeth said, that addresses some of the details to MAAPP’s satisfaction. At press time that bill was still in draft form.
Meanwhile, everyone at Friday’s hearing seemed to agree that serious regulation of Montana’s teen help industry is long overdue.
“As one parent wrote me, ‘the state of Montana needs to step in with regulations which ensure safety,’” Schmidt said in closing, “‘because when it comes to unregulated boarding schools for disturbed adolescents, they are sure sitting on a powder keg.’”