Celebrity Paris Hilton on Wednesday publicly shared for the first time how she says she was sexually abused while at a teen treatment program in Utah in the 1990s.
As she stood near the U.S. Capitol, surrounded by a crowd of other former residents of treatment programs, Hilton’s voice broke with emotion as she said she wasn’t ready to say the words out loud.
She wrote them down, she said, in an op-ed published Wednesday in USA Today.
She wrote that when she arrived at Provo Canyon School, she was forced to take off her clothes, squat and cough, and participate in a gynecological exam while male staffers watched. She said she was told this was routine to check for contraband.
Hilton wrote that those invasive exams continued during her stay, with staffers pulling her from her bed in the middle of the night and taking her to an “exam room.”
“Sleep-deprived and heavily medicated, I didn’t understand what was happening,” she wrote. “I was forced to lie on a padded table, spread my legs and submit to gynecological exams. I remember crying while they held me down.”
Hilton wrote that she asked why this was happening. She was told to be quiet or she would be sent to solitary confinement.
The celebrity said in the Wednesday op-ed that she didn’t understand as a teenager what was happening. But, as an adult, she recognizes that these unnecessary examinations were sexual assault.
Hilton spoke Wednesday about what she says happened to her at Provo Canyon School to raise awareness for upcoming federal legislation aimed at bringing national oversight to the hundreds of youth treatment centers across the country.
She and other activists have been at the nation’s capital this week meeting with members of Congress to urge their support for the Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act.
Former residents of 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 in which she said she was abused while at Provo Canyon School two decades ago.
The federal legislation, which was publicly announced last fall, has yet to be introduced in Congress. It was expected to be released this week, but Unsilenced, a nonprofit of former teen treatment residents who say they were abused, said in a social media post that it was held as it works to get bipartisan support for the legislation.
“For too long,” Hilton said Wednesday, “our government has allowed this deceptive industry to operate in the shadows without any real transparency or accountability.”
Universal Health Services, which owns Provo Canyon School, repeatedly has declined to comment on what Hilton said happened to her, saying it didn’t own the facility during the time she said she was abused. But people who were residents at Provo Canyon School in recent years have made similar accusations.
Utah is the epicenter of the nation’s teen treatment industry, where some 20,000 children have been sent away since 2015. There are more than 100 programs in the state. They cater to parents and government agencies desperate to find help for struggling teenagers.
State Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, and urged Congress to put federal oversight and more accountability in place.
He pointed to several instances in Utah where children were mistreated, including a death attributed to medical neglect earlier this year at Maple Lake Academy and an episode in 2018, when a girl was zip tied and put into a horse trough at Havenwood Academy.
McKell also pointed to a case in which a girl in Oregon’s foster care system had been sent to Provo Canyon School in 2019 and been physically restrained 30 times and chemically sedated 17 times in a three-month period.
“What do all three of these young women have in common?” he said at the Wednesday news conference. “All three [were from] out of state. All three [were] abused instead of treated in Utah.”
Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin said Wednesday that this girl’s experience shows how critically important federal oversight is. The Democratic legislator has worked to pass state laws in Oregon to protect vulnerable children, she said, but that didn’t matter if young Oregonians were sent to other states.
“Once they crossed the state line of Oregon, those protections no longer existed for them,” she said. “And there was no one who could deliver accountability for them.”
Blouin and McKell have passed measures that brought more oversight to youth treatment programs in their states.
Utah’s new law, which has been in place for a year, slapped limits on use of restraints, drugs and isolation rooms in youth treatment programs. It required facilities to document any instance in which staffers 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.
McKell has said that there is a need for more uniform federal regulation — particularly when it comes to oversight of how young people get to these programs, often called a transport.
Parent-hired transporters often pull kids from their beds, handcuff them, hold them down or blindfold them to get them into a car or plane to be taken to a treatment center. Oregon is the only state that has limited how such companies can bring kids across state lines, though McKell did pass a bill earlier this year that required transporters in Utah to register with the state and carry insurance.
McKell said that he views this as a problem that possibly could be fixed only by federal regulations. Since children are moving from state to state, he said, it is difficult to regulate conduct that happens outside of Utah before a young person arrives here for treatment.
“It’s not often you see a Republican state senator asking for federal involvement,” he said Wednesday. “But this is an area where it’s desperately needed.”