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Ex-director of Montana's Swan Valley Youth Academy director seeks to prove innocence

The former head of a Montana residential treatment center for teen boys that closed in 2006 amid allegations of abuse is now waging a public campaign to clear his name.

Chris Perkins, 38, the former director of Swan Valley Youth Academy near Condon, was never criminally charged, and state abuse allegations against him were dismissed in 2006, after officials with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services failed to prove them in a formal hearing.

However, those allegations resurfaced and made national headlines in December, when a Lewis and Clark County judge unsealed a redacted version of the state's 21-page investigative report detailing abuses that allegedly occurred at the facility during Perkins' tenure.

The release of that report generated a high-profile scandal in Maryland that ultimately forced Perkins to resign as head of that state's juvenile corrections system.
Perkins vehemently argues the allegations against him are false, and says he was exonerated when the state failed to prove their accusations in court. Since he has never had his day in court, Perkins is going public with information he says proves he is innocent.

In a recent interview, Perkins produced six three-ring binders containing hundreds of pages of documents on the Swan Valley facility — including cadet intake reports, staff nurse progress notes, staff meeting notes and minutes, internal memos, incident reports, state and federal audits, staff rosters and more. He said the documents prove that state investigators "committed fraud and gross negligence" when they produced the Swan Valley Youth Academy Investigative Report.

Perkins said the abuse investigation was spurred by an attorney for the Helena-based Montana Advocacy Program. Andrée Larose, an attorney for MAP, represents a former Swan Valley cadet who nearly attempted suicide while at the facility. She waged a year-long court battle to get the redacted report released. Larose also was the one who brought the abuse allegations to state and local authorities in 2005.

Repeated calls to Larose for comment were not returned.

Perkins said he has proof the allegations in the report are false and added that he never had a fair opportunity to present any evidence disputing them.

"I have been trying to get this information into the public record from day one," Perkins said. "All of this data that I accumulated during my two-year tenure was either discounted, or in the case of a couple instances, (state investigators) retroactively went back and said this was abusive after (DPHHS) had already approved it," he said.

DPHHS Director Joan Miles defended her department's handling of the case in an interview with reporters in December, but she declined a follow-up interview for this story.

"The Department stands by its work on this case," DPHHS officials stated in a Jan. 28 written response to questions from the Tribune.

Perkins said that during his tenure, 90 cadets went through the Swan Valley Youth Academy program. He said that during that period, more 83 staff members and more than 50 other people, including doctors, dentists, case workers, probation officers, state and federal licensing officers and even a judge visited the facility and interviewed or examined cadets. None of them made an allegation of abuse, he said.

"If the level of abuse that DPHHS claims was happening at Swan Valley had actually occurred, then surely someone would have noticed it and reported it," Perkins said. "Every one of those people was obligated by state law to report abuse. If they saw all this abuse, how come they never reported it?"

Joe Newman, president of Colorado-based Cornerstone Programs, which operated Swan Valley Youth Academy, recently said that licensing specialists from DPHHS and the Federal Bureau of Prisons gave the facility high marks following thorough audits of the facility.

"Interestingly enough, (a federal Bureau of Prisons auditor) was up there just prior to the complaint that led to the state investigation," Newman said.

Julie Fink, the residential care program manager for DPHHS, wrote letters to Perkins on July 12, 2004, and July 5, 2005, congratulating him and stating that the facility was "in full compliance with licensing requirements."

Marty Crago, the DPHHS licensing specialist who conducted the annual licensing audits, also investigated two complaints of abuse and neglect prior to the November 2005 state abuse investigation. In both cases, Crago responded to complaints levied by the MAP.

In March 2004, Crago investigated a complaint that cadets were "being forced to crawl on their belly under a truck." After interviewing six cadets who, according to her report, would have had knowledge of the alleged event, Crago wrote that all of the cadets denied having any knowledge of such an incident.

"Some of them even laughed at the allegations, as though surprised by the information," she wrote.

In January 2005, Crago investigated a complaint that Swan Valley did not provide "the required mental-health treatment" and did not adequately supervise a cadet who nearly attempted suicide at the facility. That cadet was Larose's client.

According to the report, the youth "slipped away" during an evening recreation period and hid in a laundry room. Swan Valley staff noticed he was missing during a bedtime head count and located him sitting on top of a beam in the gymnasium with his shoelaces tied to a metal beam and then around his neck.

According to the report, Perkins said the facility protocol for completing head counts was not followed by two staff members. However, according to Crago, the facility was in full compliance with licensing rules, and the youth "did receive supportive mental-health services," while at the facility.

After inspecting the youth academy, reviewing incident reports and interviewing staff and cadets, Crago found no evidence of licensing violations or abuse in either instance.

Crago, who retired from the department in March 2007, declined to comment for this story other than to say, "My work stands for itself, and I felt like the investigations I conducted were thorough."

"How could the state audit and investigate the facility and find us in full compliance, and then come back later and say those same practices were abusive?" Perkins asked.

In a written response to questions about the state's handling of the investigation, DPHHS officials stated that, "the licensing surveys conducted by the department are a snapshot in time based upon information provided and observations at the time of the survey."

According to the DPHHS, "With any survey, it is possible that the surveyor will not find evidence of deficient practice regarding the licensing standards or evidence of abuse."

Because Swan Valley accepted federal offenders, the facility also was subject to audits by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. A contract oversight specialist from the BOP conducted four inspections of the facility in the two years leading up to the state's abuse investigation, including a full monitoring report one week after Larose contacted the Lake County Attorney's Office regarding the allegations of abuse.

In each case, the inspector found minor deficiencies, ranging from a lack of vocational programs for youths, to the facility failing to forward photographs of federal offenders with their arrival packets. None of the inspector's reports indicated any neglect or abuse. In fact, following the last audit the inspector thanked Perkins for his support and "the emphasis he placed on training at the facility," Perkins said.

The state investigative report accuses Perkins and another man of promulgating a "culture of terror, enforced with physical and psychological abuse," and states that Perkins ignored concerns made by other staff members and cadets at the facility.

According to the report, the cadet intake process was "particularly brutal." It accuses Perkins and the other man of placing some youths in seclusion for extended periods of time, forcing them to drink hot water and making them exercise until they vomited. It also accuses Perkins and staff at the facility of physical abuse, including kicking the youth, slamming them against walls and, in one case, bending a cadet's arm behind his back with his face against the wall.

Big Fork physician Tom Jenko examined many of the cadets during Perkins' tenure. He said he never saw any signs that such abuse occurred.

"It was a total surprise to us that there were any allegations whatsoever," Jenko said. "We thought the program was sound. We went down there and got to tour the facility and got to know some of the instructors and got to know the kids."

Jenko said he performed hundreds of physical exams on cadets after the intake process.

"We probably saw 75 percent of them. They were healthy," Jenko said. "I never saw any signs of abuse. I'd see kids by myself and talk to them and they never indicated to me that there was any sort of abuse going on."

Jenko added he occasionally treated cadets for minor injuries such as ankle sprains or tendonitis.

"They were all minor injuries. None of them were environmentally caused," he said.

Perkins provided the Tribune with detailed nurse progress notes that are inconsistent with many of the state's claims regarding the intake process.

For example, the state claims that one youth was placed in seclusion from 10 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., but the corresponding nurse progress report for that youth indicates he wasn't admitted to the facility until noon that day, and his intake began at 2:30 p.m.

In another instance, the state's investigation claims a youth was in seclusion for approximately 25 hours. However, Perkins said he was on vacation and not even at the facility at the time that intake occurred.

"They have dates on there where I was supposed to have abused kids when I wasn't even the director of the program," Perkins said. "They have dates where kids were supposedly in seclusion for five hours when the documentation they reference says it was an hour. They said kids were forced to exercise naked for 2 1/2 hours when the documentation clearly says that's not the case. They have staff alleging that they witnessed abuse two months before that staff member was even hired."

Perkins was never criminally charged with abuse, and officials with DPHHS referred all questions about criminal prosecution to the Lake County Attorney's Office. DPHHS does not have the authority to file criminal charges.

According to Lake County Attorney Mitch Young, investigators from the state Department of Justice opened an investigation into the facility at the request of the Lake County Sheriff's Office. Robert Long was the Lake County attorney when the allegations were first made and the state investigations were turned over to his office, but he never prosecuted the case.

Young, who took over for Long in 2006, said he was aware that the investigation took place, but said he had not reviewed the file.

"I have never seen the case," Young said. "The prior county attorney declined to prosecute. I have had no good reason to investigate the case at this point. Nobody who constitutes a victim has asked us to investigate or reopen the case."

Long did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Young said his office no longer had a copy of the Division of Criminal Investigations investigation.

"We did not keep a copy of that report as far as I know," Young said. "I don't know why we would. We get reports constantly that we do not file charges on."

DCI officials would not comment on the investigation other than to say that the findings were turned over to the Lake County Attorney's Office.

Perkins said he knows why they never prosecuted.

"There was no crime to prosecute," he said.

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