Montana Board Moves Forward
By: Lon Woodbury & Kathy Nussberger
Lon Woodbury and Kathy Nussberger of Woodbury Reports, Inc. recently interviewed Paul Clark, a Montana legislator, Founder of Galena Ridge, and member of the Montana Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAAROP). In the interview, Clark explained the background behind the goals, vision and history of the PAAROP.
The Board is currently in the midst of the program registration process with its newly established five-member board. The board consists of one representative each from small, medium and large programs, and two additional persons chosen at the Governor's discretion, a Sanders County Commissioner and a Clinical Psychologist from Laurel, MT. The Board Manager is a state employee with the Department of Labor and Industry.
"Currently, the registration process is underway and the two year fee is based on program size," Clark said. "Although some faith-based programs (those that are an adjunct ministry to a church) have requested to participate in this process, they are not required to register. We have about 36 programs in the State who qualify for the registration."
The last part of this process is the site visits of the programs registered with the Board. All of these site visits are voluntary and it is the Board's goal to visit all of the privately registered programs in the State. "This process begins with our first site visits in April at 20 Peaks, Spring Creek Lodge and other programs in NW Montana. As the board visits the various programs, members will consider philosophical questions: Are the programs responsible and capable? Do they have the integrity to ensure that quality childcare is the main consideration in their self-regulation? As this process proceeds, the answers to these questions could become the basis for a recommended set of standards for all programs."
Clark added that it is important for all programs to participate in these site visits and provide the Board with the information needed to establish sensible and effective recommendations. "This Board is not currently a licensing body, thus we do not have the authority to require a program's compliance with the request. Though some programs continue to resist regulation, we are in the process of providing them with the education and information to help clarify the benefits of this study. This summer we will make recommendations based on the information gathered, to determine how to proceed and whether we should move forward with licensing."
If the private programs decide to move forward and the Board becomes a licensing body, Clark insists it must be something that is beneficial to students and their families. "I am constantly reminding the Board members that as a Board we wear a different hat than we do when representing our own programs. This Board was established to represent the needs of the students and their families."
Clark explained the events leading up to the establishment of the PAAROP Board. "In the summer of 2004, Senator Jim Elliott and I met with Gail Gray, who at the time was the director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) in Montana. The discussion centered on determining DPHHS' intention toward the private programs in Montana. Gail said the department was in the preliminary stage of looking into what DPHHS needed to do to ensure quality childcare in Montana. However, she also assured us that DPHHS would not move forward with any type of legislation other than possibly conducting a study to look at what types of self-imposed quality controls were in place in the Montana programs. She said this would determine whether there was any need for further DPHHS involvement."
Clark said right from the beginning, his primary goal was to maintain the distinction between the out-of-state, privately funded kids that attended private alternative programs, and the funneling of publicly funded kids being into programs like those within the existing state licensed group home structure.
As Senator Elliott and Clark decided to wait and see what would happen, DPHHS began scheduling meetings around the state, which several of the program representatives attended. "One particular meeting was held in Kalispell and DPHHS revealed a document they called the white paper. This white paper focused primarily on the negative aspects of programs within the state, and it began to present the case for licensing without specifically stating that DPHHS would do the licensing. With the negative rather than positive focus, even in the white paper, my perception was that DPHHS was proceeding with a bias."
Clark said DPHHS's failure to seek input from the programs was of great concern to him. "According to program representatives who attended those meetings, the discussions were more like indictments then collaborative efforts. The representatives saw it as a statement of we can't trust you to provide internal oversight of your programs."
In the fall of 2004, Clark learned that Senator Trudy Schmidt from Great Falls, MT, was sponsoring the DPHHS attempt to create Senate Bill 101. "Trudy began working with one of the interim legislative committees that meet between legislative sessions to conduct research and prepare the groundwork for legislative solutions to potential problems between sessions. It became very clear to Senator Elliott and me that DPHHS was moving forward with legislation without any input from the programs."
"After reviewing it, we found that Senate Bill 101 was a precursor to licensing. With the approval of Senate Bill 101, DPHHS would have been in the position of overseeing and supervising the licensing process with the result that private programs would be under the same oversight as publicly funded programs."
At that point, Clark began brainstorming to determine on the best course of action. "With my legislative background, I knew that in this type of situation, we were better off to go on the offense rather than defense. We invited several school and program representatives to a meeting in Trout Creek, MT, and I presented the scenario to them. I told them we could either try to kill or amend the DPHHS bill, or present an alternative bill to the legislature."
The group decided to present House Bill 628, which legislators eventually voted in favor of over DPHHS Senate Bill 101. "There was a great deal of difference between Senate Bill 101 and House Bill 628. Our Bill allowed the programs a higher level of influence in the regulatory scheme. The first thing we decided to do prior to any regulation was conduct an intensive study to identify and register the programs in Montana. We needed to obtain information about their guidelines, operating procedures, mission statements and philosophy in comparison with the national standards for state-of-the-art programs."
Clark pointed out that House Bill 628 gave the PAAROP Board very little judicial authority. "We can log complaints about programs but at this time, we do not have the authority to act on them. At the next legislative session, we plan to make a recommendation on whether or not to move forward with the licensing of private programs. In the January 2007 legislative session, we will also decide whether we want to request a permanent status for the PAAROP Board. Theoretically, it could go a number of different directions, depending on how the site visits go and the information gathered by the Board during this process."