UPDATE: The Salt Lake Tribune is raising money to get inspection reports and sustained complaints for every youth residential treatment center in Utah. Donations are accepted at sltrib.com/ourrecords.
Provo • Paris Hilton’s story of abuse at Provo Canyon School isn’t unique.
It’s the same account that Jen Robison has told. That Katherine McNamara has lived. That more than 100 people who gathered at a Provo park on Friday afternoon have experienced.
Though all did not go to Provo Canyon School, they went to the same type of facility in Utah and elsewhere for so-called “troubled teens.”
But instead of getting help, they say they were mistreated and abused.
They traveled from all across the country Friday to gather in Utah to stand in solidarity and called for Provo Canyon School to be shut down.
“Today, I’m not here as Paris Hilton,” the 39-year-old celebrity told the crowd. “I’m here as just another survivor who was abused, who has lived with that since the day I left. And I am dedicated to shutting down Provo Canyon School, which will cause a chain reaction among this entire industry.”
There are youth residential treatment centers all across the country, but Utah is known as a place where the troubled teen industry has thrived. It’s home to nearly 100 youth treatment centers, which has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in government money.
Those gathered Friday made posters and exchanged stories of what happened to them after they were sent to similar facilities as teenagers. For many, it was the first time they felt empowered to speak out about abuse.
“Raise your hand,” Robison told the crowd Friday, “if you are a survivor of institutional child abuse.”
Nearly everyone in the crowd raised their hands, including Hilton.
“Raise your hand,” Robison said, “if you were ever made to strip down in front of strangers in your program.”
Dozens of hands went up.
They raised their hands saying they had been told they were bad and unworthy, that they had been traumatized as children long before being sent to a troubled teen facility, that they saw staff members sexually abusing children in their care.
The group, led by Hilton, then went on a silent march past Provo Canyon School’s boys campus, an effort that organizers said was intended to let the kids in that facility know there was someone advocating for them.
Hilton said that moment felt “so empowering.”
“To be out there on the streets just feels amazing,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune. “But just to be here with hundreds of survivors and everyone with their signs, it was just a very powerful and empowering feeling that we are making a difference. That we are being seen.”
The gathering was the latest in a sustained campaign to force one of Utah’s largest youth residential treatment centers to close its doors. Hilton said her advocacy work will continue, which will include not just efforts to shut down Provo Canyon School, but pushing for federal legislation that will provide national oversight of the industry.
Hilton, an heiress to the Hilton hotel fortune and a reality television star, first detailed her allegations of abuse in a documentary called “This is Paris,” which she released on YouTube in September.
Hilton’s parents sent their 17-year-old daughter to Provo Canyon because she was sneaking out to go to parties. This was the last, but not the first, treatment facility Hilton went to. She was a resident there for 11 months.
“That was the worst of the worst,” Hilton has said. “There’s no getting out of there. You’re sitting on a chair and staring at a wall all day long, getting yelled at or getting hit.”
Hilton recalled in the documentary that she felt the staff enjoyed hurting children or seeing them naked as they showered. She said she and others were often overmedicated.
On Friday, Hilton said this was her first trip back to Provo since she left the school. She said she was nervous, and a member of the group, which was dressed all in black, responded “we all are.”
“They want us to be ashamed and we’re not the ones who should be ashamed,” Hilton told the crowd. “The people who should be ashamed are the ones who work at these places.”
She ended by saying, “Let’s get these places shut down.”
After the documentary launched, Hilton created a change.org petition calling for the closure of Provo Canyon School; as of Friday evening, more than 127,000 people had signed it.
[Tell The Tribune: What’s your experience with Utah’s ‘troubled teen’ industry?]
While Hilton attended Provo Canyon in the 1990s, the Tribune has talked to a number of people treated there over the years, including recently. They tell similar stories of being overmedicated, unnecessarily restrained and held in isolation.
Robison, who went to Provo Canyon School in 2003, helped start Breaking Code Silence, an online platform where people talk about what they endured at facilities across the country.
“The more I’ve learned about this industry, the more it blows my mind,” Robison told the crowd Friday. “The billions of dollars. The thousands of survivors. I’ve learned that my story is not unique. Not by a long shot. I’ve learned that there are thousands upon thousands of survivors and that so few of us have been able to come forward and speak publicly about what happened.”
Adam McClain, the CEO of Provo Canyon School, would not address individual allegations because of privacy laws. He did previously issue a statement in response to the Tribune’s investigation into the school.
He noted that mental health treatment has evolved over the past 20 years from a “behaviors-based foundation” to a “personalized, trauma-informed approach.” He said the facility does not use solitary confinement as a form of intervention and does not use drugs or medications as a disciplinary measure.
He said the youths they work with have complex needs and are often a danger to themselves or others.
“We are concerned that the current media coverage may increase the stigma around seeking help for behavioral health concerns,” he said. “This would be a disservice if it leads people away from seeking necessary care and increases the stigma around mental health that providers, organizations, advocates and members of the public have worked so hard — and made much progress over the years — to break.”
The school put a statement on its website Friday, noting that the current owners have been in charge since August 2000, and “therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to that time.”
The statement said, “While we acknowledge there are individuals over the many years who believe they were not helped by the program, we are heartened by the many stories former residents share about how their stay was a pivot point in improving — and in many cases, saving — their lives.”
For many in the crowd on Friday, it wasn’t just about Provo Canyon School. They had been in other places, but had similar experiences.
Like Cassandra Hardin, a 31-year-old who traveled from Washington, D.C., to attend the gathering.
She had gone to Logan River Academy, another Utah facility, and held a sign Friday that had a photo of another former student on it. It was her classmate, Abbey Meany, who died by suicide in 2017.
Hardin said Meany had struggled, but felt that their time at Logan River Academy had contributed to the woman ending her life.
She wanted to remember Meany on Friday as she gathered with the others who now call themselves survivors.
“This means everything,” she said. “This is a very deep-running and old issue that’s been going on for decades and has been traumatizing kids for that long. But I’ve never seen the community so galvanized as I have now.”