March 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

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,” she said.

Religious groups that run the programs have formed a powerful lobby to block any form of oversight.

Robert Larsson, the former director of Pinehaven Christian Children’s Ranch, boasted that he had derailed proposed regulatory measures several times.

“We come up every two years and debate the same points every time,” Larsson said.

Jeff Laszloffy, president and CEO for the Montana Family Foundation, a group affiliated with Focus on the Family, is also part of the effort to block oversight.

“We’ve opposed the bill for nine years and we still do,” Laszloffy said.

The Independent Record reported that Pinehaven has had serious problems over the years. In 1995, a boy ran away from the program and was later found dead after drinking brake fluid. In 2005, a Pinehaven staff member was sent to prison after he raped two girls.

According to police reports, seven teens reported being abused at the facility during the past 10 years.

Staffers at the facility are not required to be licensed counselors, or even to have any experience in working with troubled children. Larsson insists that’s not necessary.

“Our children that come and reside in our ranch have been usually through multiple psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and really this is the end of the road for them,” Larsson said. “So what we do at Pinehaven is we have a religious-based school with loving parents, and that’s what works at Pinehaven.”

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