Private youth residential program oversight bill signed into law

By: - May 18, 2023 3:14 pm

The Montana State Capitol in Helena on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)

Private alternative youth residential programs will now have increased state oversight after a bill sponsored by Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena, was signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte on Wednesday.

House Bill 218 received bi-partisan support as well as an endorsement from socialite and entrepreneur Paris Hilton, who came to Montana to lobby lawmakers for the passage of the bill, as reported by Lee Enterprises.

​​Hilton also submitted written testimony about her own experience at a youth residential program in Idaho, where she says she was forced to trek through Montana mountains without enough food and water.

“I could have died in those mountains, and I mourn those that did,” her testimony read.

Smith said in the March 10 hearing for the bill that parents often send their children who may be experiencing mental health or behavioral issues to these programs in the hope they will receive therapy and healing. Smith cited reports of sexual abuse, solitary confinement and suicide occurring at these facilities in her testimony.

The bill narrowly made it out of the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety with a 5-4 vote. Two Billings Republican Senators, Chairperson Tom McGillvray and Dennis Lenz, joined Democrats to get the bill out of committee.

The bill was amended in committee to make unannounced inspections from the Department of Public Health and Human Services semi-annual instead of quarterly, and requiring interviews for half of the youth population in the facility as opposed to interviewing all housed there. The amendment also specifies that a fixed number for a child abuse hotline be available to residents 24-hours-a-day.

The bill was carried by Sen. Barry Usher, R-Billings, on the Senate floor, where his amendment to allow for private conversations between residents and their parents passed.

Sen. Brad Molnar, R- Laurel, had tried to amend the bill so that outgoing calls by residents would be recorded by the state health department, but that ultimately failed.

Former Missoula Senator and Democrat Diane Sands of Missoula was behind legislation that passed in the 2021 session that provided regulatory authority to DPHHS over residential programs, Sands said in an email to the Daily Montanan, after which some programs decided to close. She said the bill was partially gutted during the rule making process by program providers and that Smith’s bill in the 2023 session put requirements for programs into statute.

This story has been corrected to reflect the passage of legislation on DPHHS regulatory oversight for youth residential programs passed by former Senator Diane Sands during the 2021 legislative session.  

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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.