Youth Residential Program law advances in Senate with amendment on recorded calls

By: - April 14, 2023 6:13 pm

Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, speaks on the Senate Floor on April 14, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

A bill that would increase state regulations over private alternative youth residential programs advanced with a bipartisan vote on the Senate floor with an amendment ensuring calls between residents and parents are not recorded.

House Bill 218, sponsored by Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena, and carried in the Senate by Sen. Barry Usher, R-Billings, passed on second reading on Friday after just squeaking out of committee last week.

Entrepreneur and entertainer Paris Hilton, who submitted testimony around her experience at a residential school in Idaho that brought her and others into Montana, said on Twitter she was watching the Floor session remotely.

“Watching the Montana Legislature vote on HB 218 right now… nervous and excited! Senators, please do the right thing for children in your state and pass HB 218,” she tweeted.

Hilton came to Montana last week to advocate for the bill’s passage, as reported by Lee Enterprises.

Usher brought an amendment on the floor to ensure the privacy of calls between residents and their parents, which sparked some debate.

“A child should be able to talk to their mom, talk with their dad in confidence,” Usher said.

Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, proposed an amendment in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee that would have required recording phone conversations between residents and their parents. The amendment failed with only Molnar in support.

Molnar spoke against Usher’s proposed amendment on the floor, saying that the majority of the children in these programs have a criminal background and would use the phone calls to smuggle drugs in.

“If a kid thinks that worms are crawling out their eyes, and you give them a phone call that is unmonitored, it’s to somebody that can supply them because they’re crashing,” Molnar said.

Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, who leads the Senate Health committee and voted for the bill, asked Usher how he could ensure that parents weren’t supplying kids with drugs through these phone calls, to which Usher said that was a little “out there.”

Usher said not all kids are troubled kids, some are parent placement, some through the courts, some DPHHS.

“How many times when you were young did you say, ‘I wanna talk to mom,’ or ‘I wanna talk to dad,’” Usher said.

Sen. Bob Brown, R-Trout Creek, said he worked for a “troubled teens” program and echoed a sentiment from Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber, that residents are “masters of manipulation.”

“I had some of them that wanted to carve my eyes out, I’ve been hit with shower curtain rods and narrowly missed with broom handles,” Brown said. “Many times the parents are not strong enough to have these communications that are unmonitored.”

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, said unmonitored phone calls at a local residential home in Helena are conducted by the facility and only let residents call pre-approved numbers.

“If a program didn’t have anything to hide, then why are they afraid of calls between parents and their children?” Gross said.

The amendment passed with bipartisan support, 33-16.

Brown said during discussion on the bill that the legislature is regulating these facilities out of business, and said the language around prohibiting physical discipline could apply to getting residents to “take a jog down to the end of the driveway and come back,” but clarified he was not promoting physical abuse.

Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, said he’s seen similar legislation come through the Senate Health committee every session.

“I’ve worked hard at killing it every time,” he said. “I think we’re going to micromanage them out of business is what we’re going to do. These kids are hard to handle, that’s why somebody put them there.”

In closing, Usher said this bill just makes it so the state inspects a little more often, prohibits sexual assault, abuse and exploitation, physical abuse, insures suicide prevention protocols and ensures kids can reach out to trusted person and parents can have connection to kids.

The bill passed second reading 37-13. The bill will need to pass third reading before advancing.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.