Abuse in home for troubled teen girls is all part of Idaho’s anti-regulation state | Opinion

A small home for troubled teen girls in North Idaho has a history of rules violations, police calls and serious incidents, including the rape of at least one resident, according to an InvestigateWest story published this weekend.

Cornerstone Cottage in Post Falls violated rules related to employee training, background checks and maintaining an environment that is “safe, accessible, and appropriate for those served.”

In its first five years, Cornerstone committed 111 licensing rule violations.

From 2017 to 2022, Post Falls police were called by Cornerstone Cottage 321 times, just over once a week on average, call logs show, according to InvestigateWest. That’s comparable to at least one facility that’s three times the size of Cornerstone, which has only 16 beds.

According to accounts from former employees, residents and public records, InvestigateWest found: “One girl was raped by a staff member. Others were attacked, molested or berated. Girls fought and sexually assaulted each other, with one being continually called racial slurs and harassed because of her race. Several chewed and swallowed shards of glass as if they were ice and had to be hospitalized. Others attempted suicide again and again.”

The staff who spent the most time with the girls had little to no experience working with children and were paid less than $15 an hour, former employees told InvestigateWest. For years, they didn’t have the mandated training to handle children who were a threat to themselves or others, nor did they have proper training on child abuse and neglect protocols.

Employees were discouraged from calling police for help. They were understaffed. Employees were told to report abuse or neglect to management, but those reports apparently didn’t always reach the proper authorities.

It’s an incredible investigation exposing a serious and dangerous situation.

But here’s the real problem: The state of Idaho was aware of many of these allegations, yet took no disciplinary action other than a three-month freeze on adding new residents to the site until the issues were addressed in a way that satisfied regulators, according to InvestigateWest.

In fact, Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare, the state agency with oversight authority, said it could not point to any time it suspended or shut down a children’s residential facility, according to InvestigateWest.

This is what a lack of regulation looks like, folks.

Idaho’s Republican leaders brag about being the least-regulated state in the nation, beating out South Dakota.

Hooray for Idaho! We don’t need regulations to keep girls safe at a taxpayer-funded institution. Since it opened, Cornerstone has collected roughly $7.5 million from foster care agencies in Idaho and Washington alone, according to InvestigateWest.

Some Republican Idaho legislators sought to make things even worse in 2021, when they proposed a bill that would have eliminated state licensing for teen residential treatment facilities.

Not that it mattered much in Cornerstone’s case, as the state chose to barely take any disciplinary action, let alone revoke Cornerstone’s license.

The failure to take any significant action against Cornerstone is part of a larger trend.

This year, we have documented several failures by Idaho state government to do its job:

Meanwhile, Idaho has approved $2.7 billion in tax cuts and rebates over three years, while state agencies continually fail at their jobs.

Sadly, there’s yet another layer of failure in this scenario.

The employees who filed the report in 2021 exposing Cornerstone’s violations were fired. And the Idaho Human Rights Commission said it couldn’t do anything to help them because their situation was outside its scope.

This sends the message loud and clear: Report life-threatening conditions, and not only will the state do nothing about it, but you’ll get fired for reporting the problems, and the state will do nothing to protect you.

In other words, shut up and put up.

Even worse, an earlier draft version of the Human Rights Commission’s ruling, accidentally released to the employees, showed much more support for the employees’ plight.

In it, the state said that one employee was unlawfully retaliated against, because “both (employees) reasonably believed that some of the conduct about which they were concerned was unlawful under anti-discrimination statutes.”

“The preponderance of the evidence indicates a tumultuous and dangerous environment, both for staff who suffer serious injuries and for at-risk youth who become violent and suicidal,” the draft said.

The commission’s response was that the draft version was supposed to be deleted.

Who changed the ruling and why?

Whether it’s a lack of funding or simply an anti-regulation mentality, one thing is clear. Idaho state government is falling down on the job when it comes to one of its most basic functions: keeping the public safe.

These are all executive branch agencies, under the leadership of Gov. Brad Little. Where is the governor in all of this? The failings of his administration are adding up, with no sign of remedy. This is the inevitable result of one-party rule, where the Republican is virtually guaranteed election to statewide office in Idaho, with no incentive to clean up these problems and no consequences for mediocrity and incompetence.

Meanwhile, those who suffer are the most vulnerable among us — poor children, rural schoolchildren, troubled teen girls, migrant ranch workers.

In the absence of any action by the head of the executive branch, it becomes incumbent upon the legislative branch to take action. Legislators should hold these agencies accountable and begin asking why they continue to fail Idahoans time and again.

After all, aren’t these the people you’re elected to serve?

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board. Board members are opinion editor Scott McIntosh, opinion writer Bryan Clark, editor Chadd Cripe, newsroom editors Dana Oland and Jim Keyser and community members Mary Rohlfing and Patricia Nilsson.