Former students at Utah troubled-teen centers say their reports of sex abuse were ignored

Tribune analysis identifies youth treatment centers with higher rates of reported sexual abuse.

Roosevelt • Police had uncovered a pattern of abuse at Cedar Ridge Academy.

A staffer, one who had worked with kids daily for 10 years at the “troubled-teen” facility, had made sexually charged comments to the boys. He had groped some of them during unapproved medical procedures in a small room after covering the only window with butcher paper so no one could see. He gave kids medications they weren’t prescribed so often, a lawsuit later alleged, they called him “the candy man.”

There was strong evidence that Geary Oakes had sexually abused four boys on the campus located at the end of a remote road in rural Utah. He pleaded no contest in 2010 and was sent to prison.

He later said in a deposition that he wished Cedar Ridge had better policies and supervision in place. Perhaps, he said, it could have prevented what he did.

Oakes wasn’t the only Cedar Ridge staffer to sexually abuse a child.

It happened again in 2015, when Russell Robb groped two girls, one of whom he was supposed to look after on “watch level,” an increased supervision because she threatened to run away or harm herself. Robb admitted to the crime and was also sent to prison.

The next year, the facility nearly lost its license after state officials say Cedar Ridge managers knew of sexual abuse involving two boys but didn’t report it.

And state records show regulators were investigating as recently as last July that yet another staff member had an inappropriate relationship with a student.

This troubling history has resulted in an untold number of children harmed. It also led to criminal charges, settled lawsuits, and, more recently, a change in ownership.

A detailed analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune shows that Cedar Ridge had sex crimes reported to police at a rate 4.5 times higher than the average Utah youth treatment center. Police were called 15 times to the Roosevelt campus to investigate sex crimes over a nearly six-year period.

Not every troubled-teen facility in Utah sees a high number of reports of sexual abuse, whether that is staff harming children or youths acting out sexually on one another. But some do. And there appears to be a pattern.

[UPDATE: Explore the inspections and critical incident reports involving Utah’s troubled-teen treatment centers in this new database.]

This type of abuse, experts say, happens more often when there isn’t enough staff to keep an eye on the kids — and one another.

But sometimes the abuse continues for another reason: The children who say they have been harmed aren’t believed.

Sex abuse in ‘troubled-teen’ facilities

Cedar Ridge Academy has a new owner now — and a new name as of February, Makana Leadership Academy — but reminders of the school’s past loom throughout the remote, 109-acre campus that stretches over a large swath of the Uinta Basin.

A few of the current staffers are holdovers, and the former owner still lives in a home on the sprawling property. Shingles are peeling off worn-down geodesic domes, one of which was once a barn and another a so-called therapy room.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cedar Ridge Academy has a new owner and a new name as the Makana Leadership Academy, Dec. 16, 2020. Cedar Ridge's dilapidated geodesic domes are mostly uninhabitable throughout 109-acre campus, including the large dome pictured that was originally built as a karate dojo and was later used as a barn. Makana Leadership Academy only uses one dome structure for sound meditation group therapy.

At capacity, the treatment center can house nearly 50 students, but on a recent December day, 10 teenagers were staying there. Two had been residents when it was still Cedar Ridge.

“It was abusive,” one 15-year-old girl told The Tribune. “It blatantly was. I wasn’t allowed to speak for a few months, and I was being restrained every day for stupid stuff.”

Cedar Ridge’s new owners said they didn’t know the facility had problems with sexual abuse when they began leasing the property, but added that they’ve overhauled the program and believe they have put in enough safeguards to make sure it won’t happen again.

Executive Director Jacob Pope said that means making sure students are a good fit, that they want to be there, and their families are on board to participate in therapy. He said they are working on setting up a phone so students can have immediate access to call authorities if they feel unsafe.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Makana Leadership Academy's Executive Director Jacob Pope, right, greets a few of the ten academy residents as they change classes at the treatment center, Dec. 16, 2020.

They’re also keeping a close watch on staff, Pope said, to ensure they don’t have “favorites” or push boundaries.

“That’s grooming for lots of problems,” he said. “Whether that’s sexual or not, that’s grooming for a ton of issues that are therapeutically completely inappropriate.”

Offering a hotline or a similar method for kids to report abuse could become standard in Utah. State Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said that may be part of a bill he’s drafting that would create more transparency in Utah’s youth treatment center system, a reaction to reports of abuse and mistreatment documented in The Tribune and elsewhere. The Tribune’s investigation included reports into Utah’s expansive treatment industry that pulls students from every state, the high number of complaints about Provo Canyon School, and the state’s lax system of oversight even when serious problems like a riot take place.

The Tribune also analyzed police dispatch records for 64 troubled-teen treatment centers and calculated how often police were called on a per-bed rate. That makes it easy to compare the small and large facilities to one another. Utah has centers with only a dozen beds, and some that house several hundred children.

Cedar Ridge Academy was one of five that had rates of reported sex abuse that were more than four times the average. All five are for-profit facilities, though the new owners of Cedar Ridge turned it into a nonprofit.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Sequel Youth and Family Services owns Falcon Ridge Ranch, the Utah center with the highest rate of reported sex crimes. The company said in a statement that four of the crimes reported from the campus located in the southern Utah town of Virgin during the two-year period The Tribune reviewed were calls made by therapists or staff about abuse students disclosed that happened elsewhere. Two involved incidents on the campus, they said, but were investigated and “did not result in any citations or concerns involving the facility.”

These facilities have rules they are supposed to follow, such as having a staff ratio of one employee to every four kids. Utah’s Office of Licensing oversees youth treatment centers but has faced criticism for its light enforcement. In the past five years, the licensing agency has revoked two licenses — neither of which was a youth treatment facility.

It has publicly threatened to pull a license if immediate action isn’t taken, like when Cedar Ridge owners had not reported the sexual abuse between two boys in 2016.

But a detailed review of thousands of pages of inspection records, incident reports, complaints and emails shows Utah licensors are reluctant to step in when youth facilities have faced troubling accusations of rampant child abuse, such as reports of overusing medication, physical abuse and underfeeding children.

How we reported this story

For this story on youth residential treatment centers in Utah, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Jessica Miller submitted more than 100 public records requests and scoured a decade’s worth of court filings to determine which troubled-teen facilities have the most problems with reports of sexual abuse.

To calculate rates of reported sexual abuse, Miller sent 97 records requests to police departments seeking a log that showed when officers were called to treatment centers and for what alleged crime. She received responses for 64 facilities. The incidents were then sorted into categories, including offenses considered to be violent or sexual. The Tribune calculated a per-bed, per-day rate of sexual offenses because these centers vary in size.

This project was conducted as part of a data fellowship with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. As part of that fellowship, Associated Press Data Editor Meghan Hoyer provided guidance.

Lise Milne, a professor at the University of Regina in Canada, has researched child sexual abuse among youths in residential treatment. She said sex abuse in group care settings is “staggeringly high” in both the United States and Canada.

Some of the children in these sorts of facilities have already experienced trauma, Milne said, and they sometimes try to cope through sexualized behaviors. And her research has shown that the staff members in facilities often have their own history of traumatic events, which can affect their work.

But Milne said there are ways to reduce this type of abuse. She suggested lowering the number of kids in a facility, and increasing staff. Making sure that two staffers are always with the children, she said, is a safeguard that could prevent one employee from sexually abusing a child.

And when a problem does arise, Milne said it’s important for facilities to be transparent. That often doesn’t happen, she said, if a center worries about its business or the reputation of the accused staff member.

“Youth should be believed about child sexual abuse,” she said. “Few make false allegations, although some might misread a situation due to their histories. Many don’t disclose when it occurs, and most delay until much later — if they disclose at all.”

For Robert, a 24-year-old who grew up in Utah, it didn’t register when he was young that what was happening to him at youth facilities was abuse. He had bounced around a half-dozen centers, including a few in Utah. While in a facility in North Carolina, he said, the boys participated in group masturbation. At a place in Montana, another boy flashed his genitals at Robert.

“It’s impossible for kids to articulate that they’re being sexually abused when they don’t know what sex, abuse or sexual abuse is,” he said. “Or even that it’s wrong and adults should stop it from happening. So it simply doesn’t get reported by kids.”

Robert said that even if workers found out what was happening, no one told the authorities like they were required to do.

“It led to a lot of dysfunctional exposure to sexuality,” he said. “It was known about, but completely ignored.”

The Tribune generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse, but those named in this story agreed to the use or partial use of their names.

Calls to police and lawsuits

Aaron Ross was constantly in isolation during his three years at Provo Canyon School in the early 2000s.

He was 13 years old then and kept getting into trouble. An infraction for not making his bed right. Another for not vacuuming the floor as he was told. Another for talking back.

Sometimes his punishment would be sitting on the floor, legs crossed for hours. Other times, he said, he was denied a meal.

But Ross said that punishment often meant days on end spent in an isolation room, a cold concrete room with no furniture.

It was in that room that Ross said a staff member sexually abused him.

“He raped me,” Ross recalled in a recent interview. “I was brought into the isolation room, and I was kept there for days. He would go back there, all by himself, and he pulled his pants down and forced me to perform oral sex.”

(Laila Stevens |Special to The Tribune) Aaron Ross, 33, poses for a portrait in New York City's Central Park. Ross says he was sexually abused by a staff member while at Provo Canyon School in the early 2000s.

Ross is 33 years old now. But the New York man said what happened to him at Provo Canyon School has traumatized him. At the time, he tried to tell his therapist, he said, but she didn’t believe him.

He twice reported the crimes to Utah police. Nothing happened.

Ross recently sent lengthy emails, some including graphic and violent threats, to Utah legislators demanding they investigate, which led to the attorney general’s office charging him with two felonies.

The man said he sent the emails because he felt ignored, and he worries about the 13-year-old boys like him who have been at Provo Canyon School and other troubled-teen facilities in the years since he left.

“Kids are cut off from the outside world,” he said. “And when we finally come out and express what happened, no one believes us. At this point, it’s not about what happened to me 10 or 15 years ago. It’s about what’s going on today. Those children that are being abused today, you’re not going to hear from them until 10 to 15 years from now.”

Management at Provo Canyon School denies Ross’ allegation and told The Tribune in a statement that it considers his “mischaracterizations to be detrimental to those seeking mental health care today.”

Provo Canyon School’s boys campus had a rate of reported sex crimes that is 4.4 times higher than the average Utah facility, according to The Tribune’s analysis. Officers were called 29 times to the 130-bed school to investigate sex crimes during a four-year period.

Tim Marshall, an administrator at Provo Canyon School, said in an email that the facility is required to report these types of incidents, and noted that it is a licensed psychiatric treatment center, which means it often deals with kids with more severe mental health conditions. He added that most incidents are investigated and deemed unsubstantiated.

In the past decade, there have been 37 lawsuits filed in Utah against troubled-teen facilities and 40% have involved allegations of sexual misconduct. Ten have involved staffers sexually abusing children, while five allege students acting out sexually on one another.

Provo Canyon School is fighting a lawsuit in which a mother alleges her 14-year-old son was sexually abused by another boy in 2017. The lawsuit states the boy “had a propensity to engage in nonconsensual sexual activity,” but the school put him in the same room with other boys anyway. The school has denied in court papers that it is legally responsible.

Alex, a 36-year-old from Alaska, said he experienced similar abuse at Provo Canyon School nearly two decades ago. He was held down by other boys, he said, while they groped him and tried to penetrate him with a pencil. The boys received a minor punishment, he said, but it wasn’t reported to authorities. He believes this was done to protect the facility.

Alex said he spent much of his childhood in institutionalized care and juvenile lockups, and described Provo Canyon School as “not healthy.”

“It wasn’t a healthy environment,” he said. “But you’ll always find that they’re not necessarily healthy environments. Because the kids have no voice. We had no voice.”

This article was produced as a project for the Data Fellowship, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.