Caleb La Chance hadn’t been at Red Rock Canyon School for more than an hour and, already, he had witnessed staff members hold down and restrain three other teens.
La Chance, who was sent by Oregon’s child welfare officials last December to the now-shuttered Utah youth facility, started to panic during those first moments. Then a group leader gave a threatening admonition that he would do as he was told.
“I’m your daddy now,” La Chance says the staffer told him.
By the time 17-year-old La Chance left the Utah facility six months later, he said, he had been assaulted twice by staff members and had been a part of a riot that left several teens injured.
La Chance told Oregon lawmakers about his experiences this week in an effort to help change the way foster children are treated there. He has been in the foster care system since he was 5 years old, and rattled off a number of places that he had lived at in Oregon.
But Red Rock Canyon School had been different. Violence was commonplace, he said, and teens in the foster care system were mixed with other youths who were there after committing serious, felony-level crimes.
La Chance said he had a panic attack when a judge told him he would be sent more than 1,000 miles away to southern Utah.
“My whole life, I’ve tried to stay in-state,” he told lawmakers. “I think it would be better if I stayed in-state. Out-of-state, they don’t have the rules that they have here.”
La Chance’s testimony came as Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser pushes a bill there that would require facilities that house Oregon foster youth to comply with that state’s rules and regulations. It also would prohibit out-of-state facilities from mixing Oregon foster youth with young offenders, except under certain circumstances.
“The bottom line is, we’re not asking out-of-state providers to do anything more or anything less than what they do for kids here in the state of Oregon,” she said at a legislative hearing earlier this week.
If Gelser’s bill passes, it would affect two facilities in Utah — Falcon Ridge Ranch and Lava Heights Academy. Both are owned by Sequel Youth and Family Services, which also operated Red Rock Canyon School before it closed in August amid intense scrutiny following the April riot and revelations about the number of staffers accused of assaulting students.
As of January, three Oregon foster youth remained in the two Utah facilities.
Oregon officials have spent more than $6 million sending their foster youth to four Utah facilities in the last five years. Almost all of that money — $5.6 million — went to Red Rock Canyon School, which housed dozens of Oregon foster children at the St. George facility.
But Oregon officials, along with child welfare officials in Washington, began pulling their children from the facility last May because of safety concerns. Gelser questioned last summer why Utah allowed the school to stay in business.
“My goal is not just the Oregon kids,” she said last June. “All of those kids should be out of there. That place should not be operating.”
Red Rock Canyon School provided residential treatment and schooling for youths ages 12 to 18, a mix of youth offenders, teens whose parents pay for them to stay there and foster children, like La Chance, who were 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.
Utah has a licensing division that oversees youth residential treatment facilities here, but Gelser’s proposed legislation would bring even more oversight to those places that have Oregon foster youth in their care.
Her bill would prohibit facilities from using chemical restraints on young people, and requires facilities to report child abuse or other licensing violations directly to Oregon officials. It also prohibits conversion therapy — a ban that was approved in Utah just a few weeks ago.
Staffers at Utah facilities are allowed to physically restrain youths, but there are rules they are supposed to follow. They are not supposed to use force as punishment, only putting their hands on the child if he or she “presents an imminent danger to self or others.”
But La Chance told lawmakers on Wednesday that’s not what happened at Red Rock Canyon School. He once was held in a restraint by the facility’s director for being out in a hallway, he said.
Then, just days after the riot in April, a staffer pushed him down twice while trying to pull him from another student’s bed where he had been sitting, he said. That staffer was later charged with child abuse.
And a second staffer was charged with child abuse for shoving La Chance after the boy had told him he couldn’t take away a fellow student’s therapy time for not having his shirt tucked in.
They were restrained for everything from such clothing violations to looking at girls to looking at staff in the “wrong way,” La Chance said. And through all of that, his communication was completely cut off from his social worker and attorney back in Oregon. “You can’t ask for help,” he said.
The school blocks all communication for the first 21 days, the youth said, and contact after that is limited to phone calls during one-hour therapy sessions. It took a judge ordering Red Rock Canyon School to allow it before La Chance was able to have unfettered contact with his support system.
The Oregon teen said he felt it was best to keep foster children in their home state, and said he wanted to speak publicly about his experiences at Red Rock Canyon School to help others.
His hands were shaking as he sat and gave his testimony on Wednesday, he told lawmakers. He was anxious, and had vomited just before he came to talk to them. But he felt sharing his story was important.
“Other people might not do it,” he said. “So I’ll do it. Nobody did it for me when I was younger.”