Advocacy Group Upset Over Failure to Prosecute Abuse Claims

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – An advocacy group chastised Montana authorities Thursday for failing to prosecute abuse allegations at a private residential treatment center for juveniles.

The Swan Valley Youth Academy, north of Condon, closed more than a year ago, but a state report detailing some of the allegations was recently released by a judge following a request by the Montana Advocacy Program.

“This report reveals truly horrendous and brutal treatment of children,” said Andree Larose, attorney for the Montana Advocacy Program. “They found there was basically a reign of terror that was promulgated by two senior officials.”

Media attention surrounding the report prompted Chris Perkins, former head of the Swan Valley facility, to resign Thursday from his new position as director of Maryland’s juvenile detention facilities.

In January 2006, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services completed a detailed investigation. At the time, it released a report on licensing issues, which contained some of the allegations. It did not release the investigative report that was made public Wednesday.

The department did not appear at a December 2006 hearing, which resulted in the unnamed staffers being dismissed from non-criminal administrative civil hearings. The department has not said why it did not appear.

On Thursday, department director Joan Miles said the agency takes all cases of abuse seriously.

“However, specific to the Swan Valley case and alleged claims of abuse against a former employee, any mistakes that our department may have made would not have affected the criminal proceeding of the case,” Miles said in a statement. “Due to numerous confidentiality issues we cannot comment further until we have had a chance to investigate.”

Perkins, the former head of the Swan Valley facility, told the (Baltimore) Sun that he was one of the unnamed staffers in the report, but denied the allegations. No criminal charges have been filed.

Larose with Montana Advocacy Program said she was dismayed authorities failed to follow through and prosecute the findings.

“I think this is an opportunity for the state to examine why, and put some procedures and protections in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.

According to the newly released report, investigators documented abuse involving 14 juveniles and found humiliation and cursing were part of the regimen at the Swan Valley facility. The report says an anonymous staff member later identified as Perkins was aware of the abuse and failed to stop it, and also participated in some instances.

The Division of Criminal Investigation at the Montana Department of Justice said Thursday that it had prepared an investigation last summer and gave it to the Lake County attorney. John Strandell, enforcement program manager, said it was up to the county attorney to prosecute.

“Our job is to investigate and provide the facts back,” Strandell said, adding the statute of limitations had expired in many cases since the allegations involved possible misdemeanors.

Lake County Attorney Mitch Young did not return multiple calls seeking comment.

Strandell said the document was confidential since it involved a criminal investigation.

Health department officials first released a report in January 2006 that found 19 licensing violations, and said teens were often degraded and yelled at by staff members, were forced to do excessive exercise and drink large amounts of water during intake, which caused some to vomit.

The facility also failed to report a suicide attempt, health department officials said.