Activists and legislators on Tuesday gathered at the Capitol to celebrate a new law that will bring more oversight to Utah’s so-called troubled-teen industry.
But they also made it clear that they’re not done.
Former treatment center residents hope to replicate this success in other states and at the federal level.
And a Utah senator vowed to return next year seeking more reforms.
Gov. Spencer Cox signed SB127 into law last month. It creates new limits on the use of restraints, drugs and isolation rooms in youth treatment programs.
This is the first new regulation Utah has placed on this industry in 15 years. The main sponsor, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, called it “long overdue.”
On Tuesday, Cox, McKell and others gathered for a ceremonial bill signing, where the governor said, “First and foremost, it’s about protecting the lives of our young people who are in these programs.”
He added, “While these facilities provide critical services and resources to families, we must always ensure the safety of participants and hold bad actors accountable.”
Among those on hand was celebrity Paris Hilton, who has spoken out about the abuses she said she experienced and witnessed at a Utah treatment center.
“No child should experience abuse in the name of treatment,” she said.
Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson credited Hilton’s advocacy, which stems from her stay at the Provo Canyon School two decades ago.
Caroline Lorson, with the advocacy group Breaking Code Silence, was also at the Capitol and she called the moment “surreal.”
“There is something about it that feels very magical,” she said. “Every other survivor since they have left one of these institutions, they’ve dreamt about being able to make this change, so it’s not just me celebrating this here today.”
Lorson said the next goal of Breaking Code Silence is federal legislation, hoping to provide funding to states to better regulate these treatment centers. And Hilton agreed.
" Utah is the first step. This is the place I was abused at it,” she said on an ABC 4 program focused on this legislation. “It is happening not only in utah. Next is taking it to a federal level.”
Utah plays an outsized role in this industry. The state has nearly 100 youth residential treatment centers and over the past five years, more than 12,000 children have stayed in one. Most of those kids come from other states. Some are sent by their parents, while others are ordered into treatment by a judge after breaking the law or are foster kids brought here because no place in their home state will take them.
The Salt Lake Tribune has detailed allegations of abuse, mistreatment and chemical sedation at these Utah facilities over the past two years. And activists have become increasingly vocal, organizing online and holding rallies.
McKell has said the increased attention led to his legislation and hearing the stories from survivors has made this effort personal to him.
“I didn’t understand the full scope of what was happening in the industry,” McKell said on ABC 4. “It’s not because [lawmakers] don’t care, oftentimes we just don’t know. I think a lot of my colleagues were surprised to learn it was still happening.”
Hilton and other former residents appeared before a Utah Senate committee. Following their emotional testimony, senators apologized for the state’s failure to take action.
Hilton told lawmakers that while at Provo Canyon School, she watched other kids being hit, restrained by staff, thrown into walls and sexually abused. There was no way, she said, they could call for help.
She had detailed her experiences in a documentary called “This is Paris.” That documentary led Jeff Netto to testify before Utah senators about his own negative experiences in a treatment center. Netto was on hand Tuesday and received a ceremonial copy of the new law.
“This was awesome. If Paris hadn’t come out and said something, most of us would have stayed hidden and wouldn’t have said anything. And our families couldn’t heal and Utah couldn’t heal from this. This was a big scar on Utah. And Paris exposed it.”
Netto said telling his story to Utah legislators was healing — he described it as one of the best therapy sessions he’s had.
“I don’t like this happening in Utah,” he said. “I’m from here. I was born and raised here, lived here my whole life. This wasn’t a good thing and this needs to stop. This is the greatest move I’ve seen Utah make in this regard and I wanted to be part of it.”
Under the new law, treatment centers will be required to document any instance in which staff used physical restraints and seclusion and to submit reports to the Utah Office of Licensing, which is the industry’s primary regulator. The law also prohibits programs from sedating residents or using mechanical restraints, like a straitjacket, without the office’s prior authorization.
The Office of Licensing will now be required to conduct four inspections each year — both announced and unannounced — and will receive additional funding for eight new full-time state licensing employees to achieve that aim. Public records show that the office currently inspects most facilities just once a year, and rarely uncover problems.
McKell has promised that this legislation was just the beginning. He said he plans to come back next year with more changes.
One area he said needs improvement: Transparency.
It used to be that parents or anyone who wanted to know more about a facility had to file a formal records request with state regulators to see how a place fared on an inspection or whether it frequently violated Utah’s rules.
That changed in March, after The Salt Lake Tribune, KUER and APM Reports published a database of those records online. The Tribune was able to pay the state for the release of those records after more than 100 people, including Hilton, donated to a crowdfunding campaign for them.
McKell applauded the news organizations’ efforts, but said providing these records to the public is something the government should have been doing all along.
“I think putting that database together has been extremely powerful,” McKell said. “The fact that The Tribune has to do that instead of the Legislature, that’s problematic. We should be doing that.”
McKell has also drawn support for a Oregon state senator, who has championed reform. Democrat Sara Gelser was in Utah on Thursday.
Gelser has become a vocal critic of the troubled-teen industry, after children in Oregon’s foster care system were shipped to Utah and other states. Some of those kids were hurt by staff, chemically sedated and mistreated.
Gelser was a driving force to get Oregon officials to bring all of their foster children home in 2020, and has continued her efforts to bring more regulations to her state.
“Survivors are the experts,” she said. “The survivors have been telling us what’s wrong this whole time. As legislators, we just hold up the megaphone.”