Attorney general's office asked to investigate academy

Helena Independent Record, Montana/June 20, 2006
By Sarah Cooke

Helena -- A civil rights group has asked the attorney general's office to investigate abuse allegations at a now-closed private residential treatment center for teen boys north of Condon.

The Swan Valley Youth Academy closed in February, just two weeks after agreeing to correct numerous state licensing violations. It was investigated by the Department of Public Health and Human Services after Montana Advocacy Program attorney Andree Larose, representing a former academy resident, alleged residents were subject to physical and verbal abuse.

In a letter to Attorney General Mike McGrath, Larose asked for state assistance in bringing criminal charges against former academy employees, saying Lake County Attorney Bob Long has "expressed reluctance" in the matter.

"Review of these documents will reveal that there were numerous instances of physically assaultive behavior as well as psychologically abusive, physically neglectful and cruel treatment of youth by (academy) employees which, if proven at trial, constitute criminal conduct," she wrote.

Lynn Solomon, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, confirmed the office had received Larose's letter, but said no decision had been made on whether to investigate.

Joe Newman, who helps run the Colorado-based Cornerstone Programs that opened the academy in 2000, did not immediately return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.

Long would not comment on Larose's statements, but said the case is "not a done question yet."

"I'm looking forward to seeing what the (attorney general) has to say about it," he said.

Health department officials spent about a month investigating the military-style academy late last year. They found 19 licensing violations, and said teens were often degraded and yelled at by staff members, were forced to do excessive exercise and drink large amounts of water during intake, which caused some to vomit. The facility also failed to report a suicide attempt, health department officials said.

The academy was also accused of keeping teens in seclusion too long, some for several days. The report said the academy lacked a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist and concluded several staff members were not qualified to work in group child care.

In an interview, Larose said Long has told her he would not consider bringing criminal charges in the case unless she identified witnesses and detailed why she believed each alleged incident constituted criminal conduct.

"Under Montana statute, the child abuse report goes to the county attorney directly for action and the information is all contained in the report that he needs to be able to determine whether or not to file criminal charges," she said.

The assaults that occurred, Larose wrote in her letter, are similar to those that have injured or killed youth at similar facilities, citing the death of a 14-year-old boy at a Florida boot camp in January.

Opened in 2000, the 100-acre Swan Valley academy accepted boys ages 13 through 18 who were referred by Youth Court probation officers, as well as youth who committed crimes on American Indian reservations and fell under federal supervision. They generally stayed six to 12 months, attending classes while undergoing therapy and chemical dependency treatment if needed.

The academy's Web site stated it used a "military therapeutic model" to provide "structure, discipline and integrity."

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