What can and can’t be learned from our new crowdfunded Utah teen treatment database

Tribune and KUER team up to make these hard-to-get documents public.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teen treatment registry.

The teen treatment industry is bigger in Utah than anywhere else in the country.

The Salt Lake Tribune and KUER released a database Thursday containing the past five years’ worth of inspection reports and confirmed investigations for every residential teen treatment program currently operating in the state.

The Salt Lake Tribune’s Jessica Miller was the lead reporter on the database project. She sat down with KUER’s Caroline Ballard to talk about how it could be a resource for anyone considering a Utah program for a teenager.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Walk us through the database. What’s in it?

Jessica Miller: Utah’s Office of Licensing is the state regulator for what’s become known as this “troubled-teen” industry. They inspect facilities and will investigate if a kid’s been hurt in one of these programs. They make reports that document their inspections and their investigations, but they don’t make those reports public unless someone files a records request.

We decided to build this database ourselves, to get all of these records and to give them to the public so that they can look through the oversight that’s happening in our state. This is the first time that the public will be able to look at these inspection reports and incident reports for the more than 100 facilities and wilderness programs that are in our state. It’s about five years of reports and it’s available in a searchable, free database that will be on our website and KUER’s website.

[EXPLORE THE DATABASE: Go to sltrib.com/teentreatment to find original documents on Utah “troubled-teen” centers and wilderness programs.]

CB: What was involved in putting it together?

JM: The biggest barrier was money. The state wanted $6,000 to pay someone to redact the private information out of these reports. So [The Salt Lake Tribune] did a crowdfunding campaign and we raised that money with donations from more than 100 people. Once we did that, the next challenge was, how do we make these documents useful to people? How do we get it out to people? And so we had a team of six reporters from the Salt Lake Tribune, KUER and APM Reports just scouring through these records to make sure that no private information was on there. And then, of course, we had to actually build the database and figure out how to get it online.

CB: What does the database not show?

JM: With these documents, there are going to be some limitations. For example, the inspection reports only reveal so much. It’s pretty rare for inspectors to actually note a violation when they’re on a campus, and these inspections only happened once a year. So it’s a pretty limited window.

When we’re talking about the incident reports, those are only when a facility violated a rule. So sometimes there are going to be reports where maybe a kid was hurt in a restraint or something like that, but licensors found that the facility did everything right. So those are reports that aren’t going to be in the database as well. So it is a little bit limited, but this is the first time that people can look at this data and get any sense for what’s happening at these private facilities.

CB: I’m thinking of a parent or even a state agency — someone who might be looking at sending a struggling teen to a program here in Utah. How can those individuals or those agencies use this information?

JM: It’s those people that prompted me to push for this database at all. Almost weekly now, I’m getting emails from a parent or social worker or a guardian ad litem or somebody asking for information about these facilities. They’re not looking for my opinion as a journalist, but they are just desperately seeking this information. They want to know if the places that they’re considering sending their kids to are safe. Hopefully, this database will give them at least some information about these facilities and help give them that information so that they can make decisions on places to send their kids or whether they should send their kids at all.

CB: Many businesses are required to have some sort of regulations and transparency, like having a liquor license or health inspections at restaurants. How transparent are teen treatment programs with what goes on there and how does that compare with other types of businesses and what they’re subject to in Utah?

JM: Other states have made this type of database available for youth treatment centers, whether that was inspections or restraint reports. This is information that’s commonly released in other places. Utah has not done that. Before today, it was easier for somebody in Utah to go look at the latest inspection of a restaurant than it was for them to see whether sending their kid to a place was going to be safe or not.

CB: The Utah Legislature passed a bill Tuesday to increase reporting requirements for teen treatment businesses. How will this change what information the public can see about these programs?

JM: The bill didn’t address a plan for the Office of Licensing to make this information public. What it did do was increase reporting requirements for things like when a staff member restrains a child. Now, they’ll have to report that every time. It also increased inspections to quarterly instead of yearly. So hopefully we’ll get a much better picture of what’s happening in these facilities through these increased reporting and through these increased inspections.

Editor’s note: This database project is part of Sent Away, an investigative reporting partnership between The Salt Lake Tribune and KUER, with support from APM Reports.