In 2005 Great Falls Sen. Trudi Schmidt introduced legislation to regulate the state’s private teen programs, but fellow Democrat Paul Clark of Trout Creek upended her efforts in the House. Clark, who owns and operates a residential teen program in Sanders County (evidently introducing legislation that directly impacts one’s livelihood isn’t a conflict of interest), enlisted help from industry supporters (one Sanders County-based program spent more than $50,000 on lobbying) and convinced his colleagues to kill Schmidt’s bill in favor of his own legislation, which created the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs board (PAARP) to look into the benefits of licensure. Clark got himself appointed to the five-member PAARP board as one of the three industry representatives on the panel. The final recommendation of the PAARP board was to request that the Legislature give them another two years to work on the benefits of licensure.

In response, Schmidt introduced SB 288 this session, which, among other things, requires the state to license and monitor teen programs and increase public representation on the board. The overwhelming majority of those who testified during a senate committee hearing on the bill—from mental health experts to members of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs—urged the panel to pass Schmidt’s bill, which it did.

Rep. Bob Lake then introduced a competing bill in the House (Trout Creek Sen. Jim Elliott originally requested the bill), which requires licensure and regulation of programs but keeps representatives of the industry in control of the board and weakens requirements for background checks and surprise inspections. The board makeup in Lake’s HB 769 troubles Dr. John Santa, CEO of Montana Academy of Marion:

“I think we need the majority to be of public representation so that it is a legitimate licensure process and can’t be criticized as programs running the entire show,” Santa testified in a recent House Education Committee hearing.

“The bottom line is [HB 769] favors the program owners and operators, does less to protect clients, has much less oversight authority, and therefore creates the potential for undetected abuse and unsafe practices,” wrote Ken Stettler, director of the Utah Department of Human Services Office of Licensing, in a recent e-mail to the Independent.

The problem is Lake’s bill doesn’t create responsible oversight. For too long teen programs in Montana have gone unregulated, allowing children and their families to be victimized by poorly run organizations. It’s time the Legislature starts listening to the long line of parents, health professionals and teen programs in the state who support Schmidt’s licensure bill.

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