Keeping an eye on the kids 

In the ongoing battle over who should provide governmental oversight of Montana’s teen behavior modification programs, the latest answer seems to be: the people who already run them.

The newly appointed Private Alternative Adolescent Residential Program Board was scheduled to meet for the first time Thursday, Sept. 8. Created under the umbrella of the state labor department earlier this year, the board’s purpose is to “examine the benefit of licensing private adolescent residential or outdoor programs,” of which there are more than 30 in Montana. Montana is one of the last states in the country with no oversight of the controversial teen help industry, and at least one Montana legislator isn’t sure the new board will give the state the necessary regulatory powers.

“I’m still of the belief that oversight has to be done through the Department of Public Heath and Human Services,” says Great Falls Sen. Trudi Schmidt, who offered her own version of an oversight bill in the state Senate that was rejected. “This is the first time that the Department of Labor is regulating a youth services program.”

Trout Creek Rep. Paul Clark, who operates Galena Ridge Wilderness Program for Teens (and authored HB 628) is one of the “program” representatives of the board, along with Spring Creek Lodge principal Michele “Mickey” Manning of Thompson Falls and Mary Alexine of the Chrysalis School in Eureka. The two “public” members of the board include Sanders County Commissioner Carol Brooker and Dr. Maureen Neihart, a child psychologist from Laurel.

Shelby Earnshaw, director of the International Survivors Action Committee, a teen program watchdog group based in Virginia, says having program representatives in the majority on the board could endanger the children in the care of the facilities, many of which are in remote locations in the western part of the state.

“I don’t think that running an unlicensed, unregulated program makes anyone an expert on how to do it. They’ve been running programs in Montana for years precisely because there is no regulation,” says Earnshaw. “This looks to be a really half-hearted attempt by the state of Montana to look like they are doing something to regulate. If the folks that are running the schools are the ones making the rules, Montana won’t have any regulation with teeth.”

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