Robert Gehrke: Utah should take these steps to protect kids in residential treatment programs

(Courtesy St. George Police Department) This screenshot of body camera footage shows police handcuffing teenage boys during a riot at Red Rock Canyon School on April 28, 2019.

It took bedlam erupting at a southern Utah residential treatment center and a SWAT team throwing teens in handcuffs before the state got serious about looking into problems at the facility.

According to descriptions of the riot by my colleague Jessica Miller, fights broke out in a courtyard that then spilled throughout Red Rock Canyon School. In some cases it was teens fighting teens, while in others it was staffers fighting the people they were supposed to take care of. One girl was throwing rocks and another was brandishing the porcelain top from a toilet tank.

Just four months earlier, an inspector from the state Office of Licensing had essentially reported things at Red Rock were fine, but when officials dug deeper they found not just past incidents of abuse, but ongoing issues. During the investigation, they found that staff put a student in a chokehold, threw one across a room and pinned down a girl for 30 minutes.

Utah regulators demanded changes, but Red Rock shut down after other states took more serious action — they pulled their kids out of there.

Miller’s extensive reporting is revealing gaping holes in the state oversight of the programs.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

The 30 state inspectors oversee more than 3,000 licensed facilities — ranging from foster care facilities to treatment centers for kids and adults — stretching resources so thin that in many instances there has only been one pre-announced visit to facilities in a year.

Celebrity Paris Hilton pushed the issue into the limelight when she said in a recent documentary that she was physically and mentally abused during a stay at the Provo Canyon School in the 1990s. Her allegations were noteworthy, of course, but far from unique.

Other Provo Canyon students came forward with stories of staff piling on and restraining students, teens who were chemically sedated, long periods of isolation and even deprivation of needed medications.

Utah’s lax regulation and clean image seem to have made the state a magnet for the teen help industry. And make no mistake, it is a booming industry, with the largely for-profit companies bringing more than 12,000 young men and women through the program over five years, making millions of dollars.

And really it shouldn’t take a riot, a reality TV star and months of investigative reporting to shine a light on this industry.

It’s not the first time this has come up. Twenty years ago, I was among the Utah journalists reporting on the teen help industry after one young person died in a wilderness therapy program and officials in Mexico shut down another Utah-run company.

In 2005, the Legislature enacted its current regulatory standards, which have been largely unchanged ever since. Rep. Paul Ray is old enough to remember those changes and told me Monday he wants to take another look at the issue.

“We’ve got some rules, but they’re not really geared toward the health and safety of the kids, it’s more administrative stuff,” Ray told me Monday. “And when you’ve got someone locked up in treatment like that, we’ve got complete control of their lives.”

Ray is still working on the concept, but wants to see the system have more transparency, a web portal where parents can see which programs are clean and which ones have problems, and a hotline or some method for kids to report mistreatment and abuse.

The representative hopes to have a bill drafted by the start of the legislative session in January.

Those are some good first steps, but Utah needs to do more if we want to avoid becoming the state where everyone sends their troubled kids simply because we’ve won the race to see who can have the laxest standards and least oversight.

We need to significantly beef up the state’s inspection team so these visits can be more frequent, unannounced and thorough, and the industry should pick up the tab through their licensing. Better guidelines need to be developed and interviews conducted with youth on each visit to go beyond checking for obvious risks or paperwork violations.

Instead of hiring untrained former athletes at low wages based on their ability to restrain youth, there ought to be a certification program to work at these places. Staffers should get training on how to recognize behavioral and mental health warning signs, de-escalate situations, and how to properly and safely use force if the need arises.

The Utah Disability Law Center is currently formulating other regulatory proposals, as well.

The state shouldn’t be in the dark as these private businesses make millions of dollars without any serious safeguards in place. Rather than standing in the way, legitimate operators should lead a reform effort, since it’s their image and reputation on the line.

A change is needed, and soon. We can’t simply wait until the next major breakdown, like the one at Red Rock or worse, puts us in a position where we’re left wondering why we ignored obvious problems and allowed children’s safety and lives to be put in danger.