Montana Adopts New Rules for Private Treatment Programs

The rules adopted include licensing requirements, protocols for reporting abuse and neglect and staffing qualifications

By Associated Press

MISSOULA – Montana’s health department has adopted rules to regulate private alternative residential treatment programs for troubled teens.

The 2019 Legislature put the treatment programs under the supervision of the Department of Public Health and Human Services starting July 1 after a series of stories by the Missoulian indicated an oversight board was not acting on complaints.

The rules adopted Friday include licensing requirements, protocols for reporting abuse and neglect and staffing qualifications, background checks and staff-to-participant ratios. Programs are not allowed to punish residents’ behavior through seclusion, physical discipline, excessive exercise, withholding food or water or denying family visits or phone calls.

The punishment complaints were among those made against The Ranch for Kids near Eureka in northwestern Montana. On July 23 the health department removed 27 children from the ranch.

Ranch for Kids owner Bill Sutley has denied the allegations, which date back 10 years, and is awaiting a hearing to challenge the suspension of the ranch’s license.

The health department, which is now responsible for licensing treatment programs and investigating complaints made against them, took public comment on the proposed rules on Sept. 12 and made a few changes.

Under the new rules, treatment programs are required to have a written program participant rights policy that includes the ability to contact the Montana child abuse reporting hotline.

Emily Carter, who attended a therapeutic boarding school in Montana from 2014 to 2015, told the Missoulian that when she read the new rules: “I started sobbing. That’s so amazing. I really can’t believe it.”

She said at one point she was forbidden to speak to her parents for two months while she was in treatment. She said the true test will be if the rules are actually enforced.

The family of a Spokane, Washington, boy filed a lawsuit against the Ranch for Kids in October alleging the boy was exploited for labor on the owner’s personal property, abused, neglected and sometimes isolated for long periods of time.

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