Group pushes to open report on youth ranch amid abuse allegations
By JOHN S. ADAMS
Tribune Capitol Bureau
HELENA — The former head of a state-licensed military-style boot camp in Montana, which closed amid allegations of abuse, is coming under fire in Maryland, where he was recently promoted to head that state's juvenile corrections programs.
Chris Perkins, 38, left Montana shortly after the Swan Valley Youth Academy, a privately run residential treatment center for teen boys, closed. He has said he didn't tell Maryland authorities about his past because he was cleared by state officials in Montana.
Attorneys with the Montana Advocacy Program don't agree that he was cleared of the allegations and they are hoping a Lewis and Clark County judge will soon unseal a report detailing a confidential investigation into allegations of child abuse and neglect at Swan Valley. Recent news reports indicate that the sealed investigation substantiates the allegations of abuse. Andrée Larose, a staff attorney for MAP, said the nonprofit advocacy organization has a copy of the investigative report but is prohibited by law from disclosing it or discussing its contents.
"We think it's in the public's interest to know how taxpayer dollars are spent and how children are being treated in facilities in this state," Larose said. "We think the contents of the report will provide important information about that."
Officials some 2,000 miles away are taking a closer look at the man at the center of that investigation after a Baltimore newspaper reported on his troubled past late last month.
Perkins was director of the Swan Valley Youth Academy near Condon until the program closed in early 2006.
Perkins, known by juvenile offenders at the military-style facility as "The Colonel," was hired this summer to help reopen a troubled state-run youth correctional facility in Frederick County, Md. He was recently promoted to director of detention for all of the state's juvenile facilities. However, Perkins never told Maryland officials about Swan Valley's closure, the BaltimoreCity Paperreported.
Perkins was out of the office Tuesday and did not immediately return a call for comment; however, he previously told reporters in Baltimore that he didn't disclose his affiliation with Swan Valley to Maryland officials because he was "exonerated."
Larose, the MAP attorney, contends that wasn't the case. She said she believes Montana state regulatory and law enforcement officials failed to follow through on the case.
That's one of the primary reasons MAP hopes to bring details of the abuse investigation to light.
"To me, exonerated means there was a hearing on the merits and the allegations were found to be baseless; that's not what happened here," Larose said after reading recent news reports in which Montana officials divulged details of the case. "What happened here, as I understand it, is that the state failed to appear for a hearing. So the state obviously dropped the ball. That doesn't mean that the allegations are groundless."
Larose first notified authorities of the alleged abuse in an Oct. 27, 2005, letter to then-Lake County Attorney Robert Long. Larose detailed 13 alleged instances of criminal activity and child abuse allegations in a four-page faxed letter and urged Long to take "appropriate and immediate action to protect the children at Swan Valley Youth Academy."
The alleged abuse ranged from locking a child in seclusion while staff left the building for a meal, to slamming a youth against a brick wall. Swan Valley staff also allegedly altered log books that might have documented abuse, neglect and other violations of state law.
Long's office ultimately declined to investigate MAP's allegations for undisclosed reasons. Larose contacted newly elected Lake County Attorney Mitch Young this year with the same information she provided to Long, but Young never responded to her phone calls or letters, she said.
Young did not respond to a request for an interview.
The Quality Assurance and Child and Family Services divisions of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services opened simultaneous investigations into licensing violations and abuse allegations 10 days after Larose first brought the allegations to authorities.
The QAD licensing investigation, which was made public in January 2006, revealed many of the same findings MAP uncovered in its initial investigation. In an 18-page report, QAD outlined 19 rule violations ranging from staffing problems, to failures to report child abuse to the state, to staff using inappropriate seclusion and restraint techniques.
In one instance, Perkins allegedly ordered staff to leave a youth in mechanical restraints overnight, and, in another instance, a boy was kept in seclusion for five days, according to the QAD report.
The CFS investigation into child abuse allegations was not made public.
Perkins told reporters earlier this month that state officials dropped the case against Swan Valley, effectively clearing of him of any wrongdoing.
"All the allegations against me were found to be not true," Perkins told the City Paper on Dec. 3. "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."
That's not how Joseph Sternhagen, the DPHHS hearings officer who formally dismissed the charges against Perkins in December 2006, characterized the outcome of the case.
Sternhagen told the City Paper that the charges were dismissed on procedural grounds. Sternhagen was out of the office with an illness on Tuesday and could not be reached, but he told the City Paper that state investigators had "substantiated" allegations of child abuse in a 22-page report involving 14 children, and that Perkins was never tried on the merits of the case because DPHHS "dropped the ball."
"It's a 22-page document compiled by a team of investigators," Sternhagen told the newspaper,apparently referring to the contents of the CFS investigative report. "I'm sure they could have proved something had they tried. But we'll never know for sure."
Larose eventually asked the Montana state attorney general's office to investigate the case but was told that the office doesn't have the authority to initiate criminal investigations at the request of private citizens or institutions.
"We can only do so when requested by federal, state or local law enforcement authorities," wrote John Connor, chief criminal counsel for the attorney general's office. Even then, Connor wrote, criminal investigations are conducted by the Department of Justice's Division of Criminal
Connor said Tuesday that he couldn't comment on the case other than to reiterate what he stated in his June 2006 letter to Larose. He did say that DCI was asked to do a criminal investigation. He referred further questions to John Strandell, enforcement program manager for DCI, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Larose says the Lake County attorney's refusal to prosecute the Swan Valley case, combined with DPHHS's absence at a formal appeal hearing that resulted in the case being dropped, constitute colossal failures by state authorities to protect the state's most vulnerable citizens.
"I am appalled that these criminal allegations went unprosecuted," Larose said Tuesday. "I think any minimum investigation of any quality would have yielded corroborating evidence."
Larose said the state has agreed to release the CFS report to the public if a District Court judge, after reviewing the document, is satisfied that the redacted report adequately respects the privacy rights of those involved.
MAP has asked the court to also rule on the constitutionality of the statute that prohibits the organization from releasing similar documents and information in the future.
"I think it's important for policymakers in the state — agency officials and legislators — to know what truly happens to children in these facilities," Larose said, arguing that the public's right to know outweighs the privacy rights of the individuals in the report.
Investigators with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services reportedly are looking into Perkins's past based on the information that's come to light since the City Paper report was published. However, a spokesperson for the department told The Washington Post that the agency's findings have thus far exonerated Perkins of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, Larose said she still holds out hope that justice will be served in Montana.
"We would like to see individuals who use their power to physically assault children to be held accountable in the criminal justice system," Larose said. "We want to see the state held accountable for the follow-through that's necessary to ensure that facilities are safe for people. If this is the kind of system and quality control that we have, then we should be concerned about every facility in Montana."
Larose said she expects the court to rule on the case sometime early next year.
Reach Tribune Capitol Bureau Chief John S. Adams at 442-9493, or firstname.lastname@example.org