Tribune reporter is a finalist for national award

Jessica Miller’s reporting helped change laws regarding Utah’s “troubled teen” industry.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jessica Miller is a finalist for a 2021 Livingston Award.

Salt Lake Tribune reporter Jessica Miller is a finalist for a prestigious national award for her work reporting on Utah’s “troubled teen” industry.

Utah is home to nearly 100 youth residential treatment centers, and the state has played an outsized role in the troubled-teen industry. Thousands of children have been sent to Utah facilities from around the U.S. and places even farther away, including Bermuda. But the state has historically lacked heavy oversight at such centers, and many former residents, including celebrities like Paris Hilton and rapper Bhad Bhabie, have spoken out about the abuse they experienced while undergoing treatment.

Miller has been shedding light on the conditions in Utah’s youth treatment centers for the past three years. She is now a finalist for a 2021 Livingston Award for articles she wrote in 2020 about the troubled-teen industry. The award recognizes journalists under 35 years old for “outstanding achievement” in local, national and international reporting. Miller is a finalist in the local reporting category.

She said it is “gratifying” to see her work recognized, especially in a year like 2020, “with so much great journalism going on in the country.”

Miller’s work about the troubled-teen industry began with a story about a riot that happened in April 2019 at Red Rock Canyon School, published that June. The facility eventually closed. She then decided to dive into the industry as a whole.

Since 2019, Miller has written about sexual abuse, physical abuse and chemical sedation at multiple treatment facilities. She has also documented the work of activists, including Hilton, who are pushing for change.

Read Jessica Miller’s three stories for which she is a Livingston Award finalist:

• Part 1: Inside Utah’s troubled teen industry: How it started, why kids are sent here and what happens to them (August 2020).

• Part 2: Utah faces criticism for its light oversight of ‘troubled teen’ treatment centers (November 2020).

• Part 3: Former students at Utah troubled-teen centers say their reports of sex abuse were ignored (December 2020).

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a law this year that limits the use of sedatives, restraints and isolation for teens at centers. It is the first new regulation on the industry in 15 years.

Miller, who has reported on a plethora of injustices as The Tribune’s legal affairs and criminal justice reporter, said change often comes incrementally. She said it is exciting that the attention on the troubled teen industry led to concrete changes so quickly.

“At the end of the day the goal should be to have kids be kept safe when they’re coming to Utah for treatment, and that hasn’t happened in the past,” she said.

Miller said she is grateful to the former residents of youth centers who were willing to open up to her about their experiences. She said those stories connected with readers and stakeholders as conversations about reform played out in the Legislature.

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