Gov. Steve Bullock added a layer of protection for students in alternative residential treatment programs on Thursday when he signed a bill criminalizing sexual relationships between students and staff, regardless of the student’s age.
Montana's age of consent is 16, but the new law states that the consent of a patient is not valid in a psychotherapist-patient relationship or in the context of a student at a private alternative residential program.
The new law recognizes the inherent power dynamics at play between program participants and staff.
It also defines staff broadly to recognize that individuals in power may include teachers, direct care staff, therapists, owners and even volunteers who aren’t official employees at programs.
“It’s not to take their rights away as a young adult, but it’s to protect them because they’re in a vulnerable state,” Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, the primary sponsor of House Bill 282, previously told the Missoulian.
Youth are sent to private alternative residential programs for a host of emotional problems, including sexually promiscuous behavior — which such programs claim to treat.
“In virtually every known practice standard for therapy relationships, there’s a prohibition on relationships between the therapist and the person receiving therapy,” said Rob Bell, a Missoula attorney who helped draft the bill with fellow attorney Lance Jasper.
“We’re hoping this discourages people from abusing children in programs,” Bell said.
Bell and Jasper helped draft the bill after they filed a lawsuit against Reflections Academy, a residential treatment program for troubled teenage girls in Sanders County.
The lawsuit is one of three — filed between Oct. 5 and Christmas Eve 2018 — that allege the program employed a man named Chaffin Pullan accused of sexually grooming young girls who attended the program.
In the past month, in written testimony submitted during legislative hearings, additional former program participants shared additional allegations of sexual misconduct involving Pullan and others, with accounts dating back to the 1990s.
Before the bill was signed into law, it was not technically illegal for a program employee to have a relationship with a student if the student was of the legal age of consent.
Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, who carried the bill to the Senate floor, said the bill was one of several efforts to tighten legislation passed in the 2017 session that updated Montana’s sexual assault laws, notably removing the word “force” from rape laws.
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“How many times, how clear do we have to be? You cannot be grooming and abusing people,” Sands said. “Do you have to actually put it in statute that someone who has power over someone else can’t have sex with them and then claim it was consensual?”
Sands is also sponsoring a bill awaiting the governor’s signature that would move the regulation of alternative residential programs for troubled teens from a self-regulated board to the state health department.
Both bills aim to increase transparency in the ways programs operate throughout the state, and add protections for youth attending the programs.
Currently, the majority of the state board that oversees such programs comprises people who own and operate the very programs they regulate. They’re not required to make complaints public. A yearlong Missoulian investigation showed that in the past 12 years, not one of the 58 complaints against programs resulted in significant sanctions.
In the proposed shift to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, more complaints would be made public.
However, some former program participants are wary that program owners may sway the health department’s decision-making process as they implement the proposed legislation. DPHHS has already expressed interest in working with programs to create new standards of care for alternative programs.
In the Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Program (PAARP) board’s February meeting, Carter Anderson of DPHHS said the department would consider working with programs to establish rules pertaining to practices that are common among residential programs, such the monitoring of students’ communication.
Emily Carter, a former student who attended Clearview Horizon from 2014 to 2015, stressed that if students’ communication continues to be monitored, it would be difficult for youth to have a way to report inappropriate relationships with staff until after they’ve left the program.
“There is no way to tell anyone what’s going on,” Carter said. “You can’t get to the phone to call 911 if you had to.”
Carter said that during her time at Clearview, she didn’t have access to a phone, and her emails were monitored. She was not allowed to talk to her parents privately, and staff were able to end parent calls at any time. Additionally, Carter said students were prohibited from talking to people in public, and at times they were even prohibited from talking to each other without supervision.
Still, Carter said she’s happy with the new law and she hopes to see more changes to program oversight in Montana, as well as other states.
A signing for the bill to move regulation of private residential programs from the Department of Labor and Industry to the health department is scheduled for Thursday, April 25.