Residential programs for troubled teens in Montana are subject to no meaningful oversight if they are run by religious groups, thereby putting young people at risk, a newspaper has reported.
The Helena Independent Record reported that because of the lax system, teens who report sexual abuse or other forms of mistreatment can be removed from the programs but state officials can't sanction staffers at the programs who caused the harm.
"Because they're not licensed, there's no enforcement authority," said Sarah Corbally, the former head of Montana's Division of Child and Family Services. Corbally said her department could receive reports of abuse in the programs but "had no ability to follow up and make sure the programs are safe."
Most of the programs operate ranches in rural parts of the state. Parents, often from out of state, send children and teens to the facilities to help them overcome substance-abuse issues or serious behavioral problems.
A state agency, the Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential and Outdoor Programs, has the power to license and oversee most of these programs, but the law exempts ones affiliated with churches from oversight.
Some Montana legislators have tried repeatedly to amend the law, so far without success.
In 2013, Corbally testified before legislators that her agency had received "multiple, ongoing" reports of abuse at some of the ranches run by religious groups but "there's absolutely nothing further that can be done by our agency in those situations."
Two years later, Corbally testified again and told lawmakers that the agency had received more than 30 reports of abuse and neglect against unlicensed facilities in Montana in the previous five years.
"There's no way to regulate what sort of children these programs will or will not accept and determine if they have standards that make them competent for taking care of children with these behavior issues,"...