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Spring Creek at the helm

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Forget about the fox guarding the henhouse. In the case of the Montana Board of Private Alternative Adolescent Residential or Outdoor Programs (PAARP), the fox is now running the whole rent-a-cop shop.

On June 21 Spring Creek Lodge Principal Mickey Manning was elected to head the PAARP board, which is in the process of developing new licensing regulations for the state’s troubled teen industry. The five-member board—which has been under the scrutiny of critics and watchdogs since it was created by the 2005 Legislature—is made up of three members from the teen-help industry and two members of the general public. At the board’s last meeting, three of those members voted to choose a top official from the state’s most notorious teen program to run the board (one member didn’t vote and another was absent). Spring Creek is currently involved in multiple lawsuits, including a wrongful death suit over a 2004 suicide at the school. Many observers point to Spring Creek as the catalyst for the state’s push to license these programs in the first place.

“I’m shocked that she would be the one that the board would choose,” said Isabelle Zehnder, a child advocate and founder of the Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse. “I feel that with all the publicity about WWASPS [World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools—the Utah-based organization that was the longtime parent of Spring Creek] in the media and the lawsuits that are going on right now…when there’s smoke there’s fire.”

In 2005, then-Rep. Paul Clark, who owns and operates a residential teen program in Sanders County, carried legislation that created the PAARP board and mandated its 3–2 makeup. The term-limited Clark then got himself appointed to the board and took the reins as chairman. After more than a year of examining the benefits of licensure, the board delivered no solid recommendations for licensure or anything else prior to the 2007 session, during which lawmakers went ahead and required licensure anyway, tasking the board with development of licensing rules.

Now, with Manning at the helm, the board will spend the next few months developing those rules. The board’s been given a deadline of Oct. 1, 2008. Apparently there’s no hurry.

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