Utah treatment center sued after boys engaged in sex acts in a seclusion room

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Copper Hills Youth Center in West Jordan. Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.

He was sent far from home to a youth treatment center in Utah to get help.

But while at Copper Hills Youth Center in 2014, this Wyoming teen was left alone with other boys who struggle with sexual issues. They acted out sexually on one another — an event that has left the boy with lasting issues.

His guardian is now suing the West Jordan facility, alleging its staff did not properly supervise residents and should have known the teens would harm one another if left alone.

And this is only one of several instances of sexual misconduct recorded at Copper Hills in recent years.

The boy went to the Utah facility in 2014 when he was 16, according to the recently filed lawsuit. He was one of 36 children who stayed in a “sexual misconduct” unit at the facility, which advertises itself as a residential treatment center for boys and girls struggling with psychiatric disorders ranging from depression to self-harming to physically acting out. Its residents are a mix of teens whose parents are paying for treatment and those who are ordered to be there by a judge.

On one August day, the Wyoming teen was among a group of boys who were being disciplined for making sexual comments. The discipline included staff members putting the boys together in a seclusion room, the lawsuit states, where they were left for hours with little to no supervision.

During a three-hour period, the boys exposed themselves to one another and engaged in sex acts, according to the suit. The two staff members in charge were standing outside, the lawsuit states, and checked on the boys only periodically.

When another staffer came to get them, one of the boys confessed to what had taken place, according to the lawsuit.

The guardian of one of the boys is suing the youth center and two staffers, arguing that they knew they were in charge of “highly sexualized children” who would harm others if left alone.

“This lack of supervision allowed known sex offenders to act out in a residential facility where they were to be receiving treatment,” the lawsuit states, “and developing skills to prevent this exact type of behavior.”

The teen was supposed to learn skills to handle relationships, the lawsuit says, and to be protected from other children with similar issues. But instead, he suffered emotional distress. He was diagnosed a year later with post-traumatic stress disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder and an intellectual disability.

Eric Schoonveld, a lawyer representing Copper Hills, said in a statement that the facility cannot comment on the specific claims in the pending lawsuit.

“That said, at Copper Hills Youth Center, we value every individual who comes through our doors,” the statement reads, “and we continuously seek to learn from every patient situation to improve the quality and safety of the care we provide at our facility. We look forward to defending the excellent care that we give to each and every resident.”

The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify people who have been sexually abused or minors involved in legal disputes.

Copper Hills’ license was threatened after the 2014 event, according to a report by the Utah Department of Human Services’ Office of Licensing.

State officials say the facility violated several rules that contributed to it, including that there were not enough staffers working and those who were there did not properly supervise the boys. And the boys should never have been together in a seclusion room — state rules say these spaces are supposed to be used by only one child at a time, and should be used for disruptive youths and never as a punishment.

The facility also did not report the event to licensing officials within 24 hours, as required by Utah rules.

State officials put Copper Hills’ license on probation for six months in late 2015, and it’s been in good standing since.

But licensing reports show there have been reports of further sexual misconduct — by both staff and other students — in the past several years.

Idaho corrections officials pulled five of its young people from the facility in 2015, after several reports of inappropriate touching and sex acts were reported involving their youths. The Idaho Press-Tribune reported that in March 2015, two boys engaged in sex acts with one another, which staffers did not see because they were distracted by other residents. One of the boys later told a caseworker he had acted out sexually with six other residents in bathrooms and bedrooms at Copper Hills since he got there in late 2014.

Later that year, 10 youths were in trouble with the law after a riot broke out at the facility.

Then, in October 2017, a Copper Hills counselor was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor, after police say he had sexual conversations online with a 17-year-old girl who had been released from the facility. He admitted to the charges and spent 60 days in jail.

The following November, licensing officials began an investigation after a different staff member bragged in a Facebook chat with a friend that he had sex with a girl who was staying at Copper Hills. They found no evidence to corroborate that or any alleged victim, but the staffer was fired.

And just this year, licensing officials have investigated three more incidents.

In January, a patient’s aunt complained that youths were being left alone and were vulnerable to being molested by staff and one another. She said the facility was “operating like a prison, when many are there seeking treatment and should not be treated like prisoners.”

State investigators found the facility did not have enough staff and was not properly submitting incident reports. Copper Hills was put on a “corrective action plan,” but no other action was taken.

Then, in April, investigators were back at the facility after it was reported that two boys were acting out sexually on each other. One of the boys was transferred to another facility, and a staff member was fired after it was discovered that he reported checking on the youths every 15 minutes but didn’t actually do so.

In May, state investigators found staff did not properly supervise a teen girl, who harmed herself with a piece of metal she peeled off a door. After the girl cut herself, staffers physically restrained her for nearly an hour, which included giving her a shot of chlorpromazine, an anti-psychotic medication, followed by a shot of Ativan, which is generally used to reduce anxiety.

The girl received 22 stitches in the emergency room, and was then taken back to Copper Hills.