Guest Column

Children’s Safety Should be Bipartisan Issue

Thank you to all of those who joined us in this fight

There are many issues that have become lightning rods for partisan politics. The safety of our children should simply not be one of them.

A recent series in the Missoulian titled “Troubled kids, troubled system” unearthed a multitude of problems from health concerns to mistreatment and abuses of children attending what are called “Private Alternative Adolescent Residential Outdoor Programs,” or PAARPs.

Scrutiny of more than a dozen PAARPs resulted in shocking discoveries: Staff without certifications or licensing. No individual treatment plans for the students. No CPR training for staff. No evidence of personnel background checks. No passive restraint training. No building permits. Bare electrical wiring. Questionable plumbing. Facilities not inspected by the fire marshal.

But most concerning are those of the several reports of self-harm and even suicide by adolescent PAARP residents.

Many of these tragedies have occurred in our own backyards. That is why this session, we decided it was time to act.

One of the more concerning aspects of the current PAARP system is the private oversight of programs. The Private Adolescent Alternative Residential or Outdoor Programs Board has been described as “the fox guarding the hen house” – three of five board members have a vested business interest in PAARPs in Montana. This left many questioning if the lack of responsive action to complaints was due to a conflict of interest.

That is why it is so important that the 2019 State Legislature successfully passed Senate Bill 267, which moves oversight of PAARPs to the State Health Department. This bill will end a long, contentious legislative fight that spanned 16 years, and effectively removes the conflict of interest PAARPs had with their own regulatory structure. No longer will the people who financially benefit from PAARPs have full regulatory authority over the programs.

The successful passage of this legislation was the result of many months and years of hard work, and the bill’s success was anything but certain as it was tabled right out of the gate in the Senate. The urgency to act was overwhelming, and the public outcry for something to be done is what ultimately moved this bill forward.

What made the difference this year was the sheer amount of powerful and emotional testimony from former program residents, parents and former staff. The heartbreaking stories Montanans shared throughout this process left this legislative body no choice but to act. We thank all who came forward for their courage in sharing their stories.

Senate Bill 267 was just one bill in a long list of legislative efforts seeking to address the issues surround PAARPs. Another successful measure was House Bill 282, which prohibits employees of PAARPs from engaging in sexual or romantic relationships with residents receiving psychotherapy. Another important bill that failed to pass was House Bill 222. This measure would have addressed the religious exemption that PAARPs benefit from, an exemption that has been directly linked to the problematic lack of regulations and accountability at these institutions.

Unfortunately, politics got in the way of progress, and HB 222 failed on party lines. But the work isn’t over. Democrats will continue to fight to ensure that facilities and institutions that oversee the safety of our children are held accountable.

We are both proud to have worked on addressing the issues surrounding PAARPs this legislative session, and are grateful that we took one step forward on ensuring the safety of children in these facilities. Thank you to all of those who joined us in this fight.

Zac Perry is a Democratic state representative from Hungry Horse and Diane Sands is a Democratic state senator from Missoula.