November, 22 2017
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Montana Judge Unseals Swan Valley Report
A Lewis and Clark County District Court judge on Wednesday released a long sought after report detailing a 2006 state child abuse and neglect investigation into a now-defunct privately run residential treatment center for troubled teen boys.
In the Child and Family Services report, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services "substantiates" physical abuse, physical neglect and psychological abuse of children at Swan Valley Youth Academy, a private, state-licensed military-style boot camp that closed in early 2006 amid allegations of abuse. The 22-page document offers new insights into the treatment of 14 youths who state investigators said were abused and neglected by staff at the facility.
"The court was absolutely correct to allow (the Montana Advocacy Program) to release this report, so that we can shine the light on what really happened to these youths at this facility," said Andrée Larose, an attorney with MAP, and the person who first reported the abuse allegations to state and local authorities in 2005. "This is exactly the type of scrutiny that needs to take place to keep our children safe."
Revelations of Swan Valley
The report was released Wednesday evening. State officials could not be reached after hours.
According to the report, investigators substantiated abuse and/or neglect of 14 youths by two staff members, identified only as "Staff #1," the person in charge of intake of new cadets at the facility, and "Staff #2," who supervised Staff #1. The report concluded that Staff #1 "promulgated a culture of terror, enforced with physical and psychological abuse," and that Staff #2 gave active support to Staff #1 and ignored concerns made by other staff members and cadets at the facility.
Larose brought the abuse and neglect allegations to authorities on Oct. 27, 2005. The DPHHS Quality Assurance and Child and Family Services divisions opened simultaneous investigations into licensing violations and abuse and neglect allegations just days later.
The QAD licensing report, which was released in January 2006, corroborated the allegations Larose first made in an October 2005 letter to then-Lake County Attorney Robert Long. The more-detailed CFS child abuse and neglect investigation, which was completed around the same time as the QAD report, remained sealed to the public until Wednesday.
How Troubled Teen Intakes were Treated
The report's findings allege a pattern of brutality and degradation at the facility, especially during the intake process. According to the report, "the extent of violence utilized by staff in many of these intake procedures was so extreme that most of the youths who underwent the severe intake procedure seem to have dissociated during the intake procedure and even now appear to evidence symptoms of relatively severe post traumatic stress disorder."
Why This Report is Important Now
Allegations surrounding Swan Valley at the time it closed resurfaced in recent days after the Baltimore City Paper reported that Chris Perkins, who was the director of Swan Valley at the time the alleged abuses occurred, was chosen to head the state of Maryland's juvenile corrections programs. Perkins, 38, told the newspaper he did not disclose his history at Swan Valley to Maryland authorities, saying he was "exonerated" by Montana authorities.
"All the allegations against me were found to be not true," Perkins told the newspaper. "There was no evidence or proof to support allegations that were grossly negligent, malicious and manufactured. The state couldn't prove their case in any way, shape or form. If even one of the allegations were true, then the state would have substantiated the allegations. Instead, they dismissed them."
The City Paper reported that a DPHHS lawyer familiar with the case said the report is a substantiated document.
The CFS report states that "investigators were able to determine that abuse and neglect allegations regarding 14 of the youth could be substantiated with regard to Staff #1 and Staff #2."
Perkins told the City Paper that the person identified as "Staff #20" in the QAD licensing report was him. Larose refused to comment on the identify of Staff #1 and Staff #2 in the CFS report, but by comparing documents and news reports directly related to the case, the Tribune has learned that Perkins is identified as Staff #2.
According to the Washington Post, investigators with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services are investigating Perkins' past based on the information that's come to light in recent media reports.
"The findings of the state of Montana against him are quite serious," Marlana Valdez, director of Maryland's Office of the Independent Juvenile Justice Monitor, told the Washington Post on Monday. "He had an ethical obligation to disclose his background."
Perkins did not return a phone call for comment.
MAP sued the state of Montana in December 2006 to try to force the release of the confidential abuse and neglect report, arguing that Montana citizens and policymakers had a right to know what went on inside a state-licensed facility that received state funding. DPHHS officials initially fought to keep the document confidential, but later agreed to allow its release after a review by the court to ensure the redacted document adequately respects the privacy rights of those involved.
On Wednesday, Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled that the contents of the redacted report should be made public.
Tragedies of this Case
"One of the most heartbreaking aspects of this situation is that many children involved in the youth court system have been traumatized in their lives already or have mental illnesses and need treatment," Larose said in a statement Wednesday. "We've spent taxpayer money to hurt them, not help them."
The Lake County Sheriff's Office and the Montana Department of Criminal Investigation initiated a criminal investigation in 2006, according to a state justice department spokesperson, and an investigative file was turned over to the Lake County Attorney's Office.
Mike Batista, who supervised DCI's review of the case, told the City Paper that his office interviewed some of the children and staff at the facility but that the investigation was hampered by the fact the facility had closed. Batista told the newspaper that the matter was referred back to the Lake County attorney, who declined to press charges. Batista said his investigator agreed with that decision.
A call to the Lake County Attorney's Office was not returned.
Why have Allegations Against These Troubled Teens Not Been Pursued Further?
"The Lake County Attorney's Office, too, has an obligation to explain to the public why it has refused to prosecute individuals who committed these physical assaults against these children," Larose said.
Larose first uncovered the alleged abuse at Swan Valley while she was representing a youth who was facing revocation of his probation for having been terminated from program after he attempted suicide, she said.
"I am appalled that the county attorney sought to prosecute my client for having a mental illness, but refused to prosecute the two adults who physically assaulted the children in their care," Larose said.
Bernadette Franks-Ongoy, MAP director, said she hopes the release of the report will spur state and local child protection and law enforcement officials into more decisive action in the future.
"The state needs to use this as an opportunity to examine whether resources allocated to protecting and treating children with emotional disturbances are sufficient, and to rectify the gaps in its own process that allowed this substantiation of abuse to fall through the cracks," Franks-Ongoy said in a statement. "The state cannot allow this to happen again."
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