Foster boy sues Oregon officials who sent him to Red Rock Canyon School in St. George

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Red Rock Canyon School in St. George. Tuesday, July 9, 2019.

A new lawsuit filed on behalf of a 15-year-old foster boy sheds new light on how young people were treated at a now-shuttered Utah school for troubled youth.

The boy, identified only as Y.G. in the federal lawsuit lodged against Oregon officials who sent him to Red Rock Canyon School in St. George, alleges that staff members at the school knew he was being bullied and assaulted by older teens — but did nothing.

He was there during an April riot that left several teens injured, and the lawsuit alleges staffers allowed the violence to escalate and “encouraged some of the rioters to harm other children.”

After the riot, Utah and Oregon officials investigated. The boy’s attorney, David Kramer, wrote in the lawsuit that authorities found several “unreasonable and unsafe conditions” at the Utah facility.

Red Rock Canyon School had hired unqualified staffers, he alleges, and did not conduct proper background checks — resulting in the hiring of at least one convicted felon. Staff weren’t properly trained, the lawsuit states, and were overworked and fatigued, working double shifts seven days a week.

Students were allowed to restrain each other, including in choke holds. And staff members had mistreated the youth by insulting them, inciting violence among students and by physically abusing them, the lawsuit alleges.

Sequel Youth and Family Services, the company that owns Red Rock Canyon School, closed the Utah facility this summer following the riot and recent revelations about the number of staffers accused of assaulting students.

The facility provides residential treatment and schooling for youths age 12 to 18 — a mix of teens whose parents pay for them to stay there, those who are ordered to be there by a judge and foster children, like Y.G., who are sent by their home states.

Red Rock had been frequently visited by police investigating staffers for child abuse, drugs and most recently sex crimes. Police records show officers were called there nearly 200 times since 2014, with 35 calls in 2019 alone before the school closed in August.

Ten staffers at the Utah school have been charged with child abuse since 2017, with accusations ranging from choking to punching students in the face.

After the riot, Utah authorities had threatened to pull Red Rock’s license if more than a dozen changes weren’t made. Sequel initially pushed back on the state’s findings, but voluntarily closed the facility and gave up its license two months later.

Sequel could eventually re-apply for its license and re-open, but a spokeswoman for the company said in October that they have “no definitive plans” for the property, a converted hotel that sits on St. George Boulevard. The company also recently closed another Utah facility, Mount Pleasant Academy, but still operates two others in the state: Lava Heights Academy, which focuses on art therapy, and Falcon Ridge Ranch, a girls-only school that includes therapy with horses.

When asked about the allegations in Y.G.'s lawsuit, Sequel released this statement Thursday: “We believe it is our primary duty to ensure the health and safety of every child in our care. While we do not comment on pending litigation, we will continue to do everything within our control to ensure the children in our programs receive the care and services they need from our highly trained staff.”

Oregon officials had been paying $330 per day to house each of the foster children they sent to Sequel facilities, and Y.G. was one of 23 Oregon youth who were at Red Rock Canyon School around the time of the riot earlier this year.

Kramer, the boy’s attorney, accused Oregon officials of pushing its foster children to other states without proper monitoring, placing them “out of sight and out of mind.”

He says Oregon officials either knew, or should have known, that there were issues at Red Rock Canyon School.

Oregon Department of Human Services officials declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday, saying they could not discuss pending litigation.

The lawsuit alleges that Y.G. was mistreated by Oregon officials long before he got to Utah.

The boy had been in a Bulgarian orphanage until he was 12 years old, when he was brought to Oregon for a private adoption. When that fell through, he became a ward of the state, the lawsuit says.

He has “severe and ongoing psychological, emotional and behavioral challenges,” his attorney wrote in the lawsuit, stemming from his upbringing in the Bulgarian orphanage. He is educationally delayed, and requires a Bulgarian interpreter — something that his lawyer says was not provided to him at Red Rock or any other Oregon placement.

The lawsuit alleges that Y.G. had been kept in a Best Western hotel in Oregon in 2018, despite having foster parents willing to care for him. Y.G. alleges two Oregon child welfare workers had sex in the bed next to him in November 2018.

Shortly after, he was taken to a juvenile lock-up in Oregon before being sent to Red Rock Canyon School.

Oregon officials made an effort to begin pulling its foster children from Red Rock after the riot, but it wasn’t until the school closed that it removed all of its youth from that facility. Two Oregon youth remain in Utah at Falcon Ridge Ranch as of October, according to officials there.

Y.G. was moved out of Utah after Red Rock closed to another residential treatment center in Oregon, where he is three hours away from his support system, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges Oregon’s treatment of Y.G. amounts to negligence, abuse of a disabled person and infliction of extreme emotional distress. He is asking for $7 million in damages.

Kramer, the boy’s attorney, also asked for a judge to issue an injunction that would force Oregon to provide Y.G. with a Bulgarian interpreter. He also asks for a judge to prohibit Oregon officials from placing Y.G. in motels or anywhere outside of his home state without his written approval.

“I think it’s shameful,” Kramer told The Tribune, “how Oregon DHS and Red Rock treated my client.”