Washington • Months after celebrity Paris Hilton and a group of activists helped change Utah’s law to bring more oversight to the “troubled-teen” industry, they are trying to replicate this success.
This time, at the federal level.
Hilton and the nonprofit Breaking Code Silence, an advocacy group led by former treatment center residents, announced legislation that would introduce nationwide regulations to youth residential treatment centers on Wednesday outside of the U.S. Capitol.
“It’s clear that the state-by-state patchwork of limited, weak oversight and inconsistent licensing requirements is not working,” Hilton said. “Federal law and funding are desperately needed to bring real reform and true accountability to congregate care in America.”
Hilton has become the public face of this movement after saying she was abused as a resident at Utah’s Provo Canyon School in the 1990s.
The new federal legislation, which is sponsored by Democrats Rep. Ro Khanna of California and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, would create a bill of rights to protect kids who are in congregate care facilities. Those rights would include being free from abuse and neglect, freedom from physical and chemical restraints and the right to be free from abusive or traumatizing treatment by staff or other youths.
It would also emphasize data collection, and make federal funding available for states to mend systemic issues.
Khanna said the legislation was “not a messaging bill.”
“This is a bill we need to pass,” he said. “We need to pass it in the House and in the Senate in a bipartisan way to have basic rights for America’s kids who get sent to these facilities so that they are treated with dignity and respect.”
When asked if the proposed legislation had any Republican support, Khanna said, “we’re working on that.”
Utah’s members of Congress, all Republicans, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Former residents of residential teen treatment centers have started speaking out more frequently about abuses they say they suffered during their time in facilities in Utah and other states. The coordinated activism was largely sparked in 2020, after Hilton released a documentary where she said she was abused while at Provo Canyon School two decades ago.
Hilton told Utah lawmakers in February that while she was at the Utah facility, she also 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.
While the federal legislation would affect youth treatment centers all around the country, its impact would be especially prominent in Utah, which plays an outsized role in the troubled-teen industry.
Caroline Cole, with Breaking Code Silence, said Wednesday that she felt “victorious” standing at the nation’s Capitol advocating for change.
“We actually thought Utah would be our last battleground, quite frankly,” she said. “Luckily, lawmakers in Utah really took hold of this issue right away, and they contacted us and were seeking solutions. The fact that we can make change in Utah really gives us a lot of hope for this national movement.”
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.
Hilton and Breaking Code Silence started their advocacy work in Utah, pushing for reform that was signed into law last April.
Now in Utah, treatment centers are 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.
Utah Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, sponsored those reforms last year. On Wednesday, he said he’s concerned with how kids are being brought to Utah facilities through transport facilities, which are often hired by parents to take youths from their beds in the middle of the night and take them across state lines to a facility. He’s still studying the issue and isn’t sure if he’ll have any new legislation for Utah’s 2022 session, which begins in January.
“I’m really optimistic with the federal legislation,” he said. “If we do that right, it may resolve the majority of my concerns.”