Who’s watching the kids? 

One year ago, the Montana Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP) had their first meeting in Helena, whereupon members began considering the future of regulation of Montana’s lucrative teen-help industry. Created during the 2005 legislative session, the board set forth to “examine the benefit of licensing private adolescent residential or outdoor programs,” of which there are about 30 in Montana.

Around the time the board was beginning its work, Montana PBS producer Anna Rau began her own investigation of the state’s $40-million-a-year industry. What she found will be the subject of an upcoming Montana PBS documentary, Who’s Watching the Kids?, set to premiere locally Thursday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m.

Montana is one of the last states in the country with no oversight of the controversial teen-help industry, and according to the 64-page report the PAARP board delivered to the state Economic Affairs Interim Committee on Sept. 12, it looks like it will be at least another two years before any substantial oversight legislation may be considered. The only current PAARP recommendation requiring legislative action would be to give the five-member board—which includes three industry representatives—authority to require programs to register with the board.

“We’ve got some more work to do to determine the regulatory structure and we’ve asked for some more time to do that,” says Trout Creek Rep. Paul Clark, who operates Galena Ridge Wilderness Program for Teens (and authored the legislation creating the PAARP board).

Meanwhile, Rau’s documentary, which the Independent screened earlier this week, paints a grim picture of a booming industry shrouded in controversy and allegations of abuse in a state where no one—to answer the question of the title—is watching the kids.

Great Falls Sen. Trudy Schmidt, chair of the Children, Families, Health, and Human Services Interim Committee, says she’s not satisfied the board has done enough to protect children in such programs. She says she doesn’t believe a labor department board stacked with industry representatives will get the job done.

“I still have concerns,” says Schmidt, who adds, “there’s a good possibility” she’ll introduce new regulatory legislation in the next session.

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