Editor’s Note: This story was produced as part of “Sent Away,” an investigative podcast from The Salt Lake Tribune, KUER and APM Reports that examines Utah’s teen treatment industry. You can listen to Episodes 1 and 2 here.
Katey Handel still remembers the fear she felt more than a decade ago when — at 17 — she awoke to a scruffy man towering over her.
“We can do this the easy way,” she recalled him saying. “Or we can do this the hard way. But you’re coming with me.”
It was 2008. Handel was living in Louisiana and had recently found out she was pregnant. It had been a crisis for her family, she recalled. Her older sister had come to visit and had gotten them a hotel room to talk and spend some time together.
Handel had no idea why there were now two strangers in that room, one of them grabbing her from her bed.
“I felt like I had no choice,” she said. “So I went with him. I knew at that point I was pregnant. So I didn’t want to go the hard way, whichever way that meant.”
That man was Daniel Taylor, a Utahn who at the time ran a youth treatment facility in Cedar City called Integrity House. He had gone to Louisiana to bring Handel to his facility with her parents’ permission. Surprising her in the middle of the night was part of the plan.
Outside the hotel room, Handel’s father had been waiting in his SUV, she recalled. She was told to get in the backseat with Taylor. Her dad then drove them to the airport, and Taylor flew with her to Cedar City, where she would stay for the next four months.
The way Handel ended up in Utah is a common tactic in the so-called “troubled-teen” industry. With a parent’s consent, two people are sent to surprise their child while they are asleep to forcefully take them to a wilderness program or residential treatment center.
These programs, many of which are based in Utah, sometimes send staff like Taylor to retrieve children. Parents can also hire a “secure transport” company whose sole purpose is to shepherd teens to treatment centers.
This shadowy corner of the teen-treatment industry is almost entirely unregulated. Parent-hired transporters can pull kids from their beds, handcuff them, hold them down or blindfold them. There’s only one state in the country that has limited how such companies can bring kids across state lines.
In Utah, a legislator who recently sponsored a bill that brought regulatory reform to the state’s booming teen-treatment industry said he wants to take a closer look at how kids from all over the country are getting to Utah for treatment.
Some former residents say the experience had traumatizing effects that have lingered with them into adulthood, long after they left a treatment center.
A booming industry in Utah
There are more than 100 licensed youth treatment programs in Utah. They cater to parents and out-of-state agencies who care for struggling teenagers.
Some are smaller group homes, tucked into suburban neighborhoods — like Integrity House, where Handel was sent. Others are sprawling horse ranches, or big boarding schools. There are also wilderness therapy programs, which require teenagers to hike through Utah’s sprawling deserts and public lands.
Since 2015, some 20,000 kids have been sent away to these Utah teen treatment programs. The children come from wealthy families and foster care. Some are on juvenile probation. They may be struggling with drug misuse or eating disorders. Some are depressed or defiant. Some have cut themselves or attempted suicide.
It’s estimated these teens bring hundreds of millions of dollars into Utah’s economy every year, according to a research brief from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
And a new data analysis from APM Reports, The Salt Lake Tribune and KUER shows just how outsized this industry is in Utah compared to other places.
Over six years, from 2015 to 2020, 34% of all teens that crossed state lines to enter a youth treatment facility ended up in Utah. That means Utah receives more kids than any other state — and it’s not even close.
On average, Utah receives nearly 3,000 kids annually. Virginia and Texas, the next two most popular destinations where troubled teens are sent for treatment, receive between 1,200 and 1,300 kids per year.
A lot of those Utah-bound kids arrive through a “secure transport” company, where parents pay thousands of dollars to have someone pick up their child and take them away.
At one transport company in St. George, parents pay nearly $2,500, plus the airfare for two employees and their teenager, if needed.
Taylor, who helped run Integrity House for nearly a dozen years, would often go get residents himself. Whether or not the transport was a surprise, he said, like it was for Handel, often depended on the child’s parents.
“Sometimes the parents are worried that they’re not going to come, or they’re going to run away or whatever,” he said. “So they’ll keep it hidden from them until we show up.”
Should transport be regulated?
Stephanie Balderston will never forget when Taylor wrestled her into the back seat of a car, taking her from her life in Colorado to Integrity House in 2008.
She still has nightmares, she said, waking up in the middle of the night crying after reliving that moment when Taylor pulled her into a car as she screamed for help. Her parents watched nearby, she remembers, crying but doing nothing to intervene.
“It is seriously like the most inhumane, crazy thing that you’ll ever experience in your life,” she said.
That memory haunts Balderston in her waking hours, too. She sees men who look similar to Taylor at a store, and she’s hit with a wave of fear.
“Like in Costco or something, and you look over and you see some random person. And in my head, it’s him,” she said. “And I freeze. And I’m terrified. And I start having flashbacks of my transport and being at Integrity House.”
Utah state Sen. Mike McKell, a Spanish Fork Republican, sponsored legislation last year that marked the first reform to oversight of Utah’s troubled-teen industry in 15 years.
The new law placed limits on use of restraints, drugs and isolation rooms in youth treatment programs. It required facilities to document any instance in which staff use physical restraints and seclusion, and it mandated that they submit reports to state licensors. It also upped the required number of inspections that state regulators must conduct.
But that legislative action didn’t put any limits on what people who transport kids to teen treatment programs can do — something McKell said he hopes to address in the future.
“I don’t think the way we transport kids is appropriate,” he said. “I’m convinced that if you start a treatment program with extreme trauma, common sense says that can’t be good for kids. And I just think it should be banned entirely.”
Oregon is the only state that puts limits on what transporters can do when bringing kids into its state for treatment — and those limitations were enacted only recently, in 2021.
That legislation, brought by Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, requires those who transport kids to Oregon facilities to be registered with the state’s Department of Human Services. It also prohibits transporters from using mechanical restraints, like handcuffs, when taking kids to facilities.
“No more hoods, or blindfolds, or handcuffs,” Gelser Blouin said during a floor debate last June. “These are not kids who have committed any crimes. These are just kids who parents are struggling with. And some have a very significant need for care or support, but not for blindfolds and hoods and handcuffs.”
McKell said that he views this as a problem that possibly only can be fixed by federal regulations. Since children are moving from state to state, he said, it’s difficult to regulate conduct that happens outside of Utah before a young person arrives here for treatment.
There has been recent momentum to bring federal oversight to teen treatment programs nationwide, but the Accountability for Congregate Care Act hasn’t been formally introduced or debated yet.
In the meantime, McKell said he wants to start understanding the scope of the transport service industry inside Utah. He sponsored a bill this session that will now require transport companies to carry insurance and be licensed with the state — but it doesn’t enact any regulatory or oversight measures.
“There’s been some serious abuse allegations in the past,” McKell said. “I’m concerned with kids being picked up in the middle of the night and the trauma it creates.”