These days, Javier Soto can only kiss the wallet-sized photo he keeps of his smiling daughter. Or, when he might have leaned down and pressed his lips to the top of her head in years past, he now bends to kiss a marble slab that marks where the 14-year-old girl was buried more than a year ago.
Sofia Soto died in January 2022 at Maple Lake Academy, a teen treatment center in Utah County, after state licensors say staff there did not give her proper medical care despite her worsening symptoms and her mother’s requests that she be taken to a doctor.
Her parents in recent weeks filed a civil lawsuit against the Utah program, alleging that their daughter had been left to suffer alone, dying in a hallway, while a staff member who was supposed to check on the residents had fallen asleep in another room.
Javier and Patricia Soto say losing their 14-year-old daughter, whom they called Sofi, was devastating. They lost their girl who had deep empathy for people and animals, who was obsessed with koalas, who had a booming singing voice. They lost Sofi, who loved fiercely, and who would refer to her autism as her “super power.”
Sofi’s cause of death has not been publicly disclosed, and wasn’t listed in the lawsuit. Her parents allege in their lawsuit that Maple Lake Academy contributed to her death because they did not get medical care for Sofi as she vomited for days and her health deteriorated. Had staff acted sooner, the lawsuit alleges, Sofi could have received an early diagnosis and treatment.
Maple Lake Academy did not address the parents’ allegations in a brief statement released in response to the lawsuit.
“Obviously, this situation is tragic for all involved,” the statement reads. “It would not be appropriate for us to comment at this time, other than to say that our hearts continue to go out to the Soto family for their loss. We respect the legal process and will act in good faith as we seek resolution.”
‘Sofi is definitely not well’
It wasn’t an easy choice for the Sotos, they said, to decide to send Sofi to Utah for help.
She grew up in Miami with her mother, and had moved to Denver to live with her father in 2020. Their daughter had been struggling, the parents said, and they had researched their options for about two years prior to choosing Maple Lake Academy to care for her.
“Sofia was on the autism spectrum,” Javier Soto said. “And — like so many young people in our country – was also going through some challenges with her mental health. We wanted to provide her with any and all resources we could to help her overcome these challenges.”
Maple Lake Academy’s website says it caters to teenagers who have autism, anxiety, depression and certain learning disabilities.
“We find that our students are thought of as ‘soft kids’ with lots of anxiety and/or depression, difficulties in regulating their emotions, a poor history of making and keeping healthy friends, and are deeply desirous of having connections with others and close friends,” its website reads.
Sofi had been at Maple Lake for just over four months before she became increasingly ill in mid-January. Her parents allege in the lawsuit that Sofi had been vomiting, complained of heartburn and had diarrhea — but staff did little to help her.
State investigators found after Sofi’s death that at least one staffer didn’t believe the girl had actually been sick. They found that Maple Lake Academy’s recreational therapist yelled at Sofi and belittled her when she was too sick to join in a hike.
“You don’t know what pain is,” the staffer told her, according to multiple interviews conducted by state licensors.
As Sofi’s condition worsened, her mother tried to intervene. Patricia Soto texted the staff nurse four days before her daughter’s death, according to the lawsuit, asking her to take Sofi to a doctor and have tests run.
“Sofi is definitely not well,” she wrote. “She is extremely pale and her lips are white. Something that only happens when she is sick. She also told us she was running a temperature? Plea[s]e let me know what’s happening.”
But the nurse didn’t take Sofi for medical care immediately, the lawsuit alleges. Staff urged Sofi to drink more liquids, the court filing says, but “inexplicably failed to seek any outside medical evaluation for her.”
‘Combined failures’ that led to Sofi’s death
Finally, after the mother reached out again, Maple Lake Academy’s nurse tried to schedule a doctor’s visit — but because it was the weekend by that time, she ended up taking Sofi to the Spanish Fork Instacare.
The doctor there diagnosed Sofi with gastroenteritis, and she was sent back to Maple Lake without further testing. Her parents have also sued Intermountain Health, which owns the clinic, and the physician who treated their daughter, alleging their negligence also contributed to the girl’s death. Intermountain Health declined to comment on the lawsuit’s allegations.
Later that evening, on Jan. 15, staff members tried to get Sofi to drink fluids and eat, according to the lawsuit. Sometime during the night, the girl got out of bed and fell in the hallway near the bathroom. She moaned while on the floor, the lawsuit says, and didn’t respond when a staffer told her to be quiet so she wouldn’t disturb the other girls.
The staff member then went back to her office and fell asleep, the lawsuit alleges. (State regulators found that Maple Lake Academy had submitted logs to the investigators indicating this employee checked on the residents every 15 minutes that night, but the staffer later admitted to investigators that she had been asleep for about four hours.)
A staff member who arrived the next morning went to check on Sofi, according to the lawsuit, and found her unresponsive. After calling Maple Lake Academy’s nurse, the employee called 911 for help. Sofi died at a hospital later that morning.
Sofi’s parents allege in the lawsuit that the “combined failures” of Maple Lake Academy and its medical staff, as well as Intermountain’s Instacare facility and its physician, prevented “early diagnosis, treatments and life-saving care” for their daughter’s unspecified medical condition.
Two teen treatment deaths in Utah in one year
Sofi was not the only teenage girl to die in a Utah teen treatment center last year from a medical issue.
Another girl, 17-year-old Taylor Goodridge, died at Diamond Ranch Academy in December from an infection of tissue in her abdomen that is usually “easily treated,” according to her family’s attorney.
Even though Goodridge had been experiencing symptoms of peritonitis for days, staff at the southern Utah youth residential treatment center refused her medical attention, according to the family attorney. She died on Dec. 20, 2022.
Goodridge’s family filed a lawsuit later that month, alleging that staff provided no medical care to her as she begged for help. Instead, the lawsuit alleges, staff told her she was faking it and to “suck it up.” Diamond Ranch Academy has asked a judge to dismiss their lawsuit.
Despite these two deaths — and similar allegations that staff ignored the girls’ medical needs — Utah regulators have allowed both Maple Lake Academy and Diamond Ranch Academy to remain open. Both are currently listed as “conditional” status on the Office of Licensing’s website as of Thursday, which generally means they are required to give extra weekly reports or ensure that their residents are receiving prompt medical care.
Goodridge’s parents said in an April statement that they were “dumbfounded” by licensors’ decision to settle the disciplinary action with Diamond Ranch Academy with no input from their family.
“Diamond Ranch Academy is now able to continue accepting unknowing students with naive parents,” they said, “so that the owners of Diamond Ranch Academy can continue to earn profits from the misfortunes of its students and their parents.”
Regulators had initially said they would shut down Maple Lake Academy after Sofi died and another girl staying there did not get immediate medical care after she hit her head on pavement several months later. It was a rare move for the Office of Licensing, which has been criticized for light oversight that has contributed to Utah’s booming teen-treatment industry.
But the licensing agency eventually backed down and reversed course, and allowed Maple Lake Academy to stay open. Sofi’s parents called this decision “surprising” in their legal filing.
For more than a year, the Sotos have grieved their daughter, who died at a place where they thought she would be safe. They’ve relied on their faith, and their memories of Sofi singing in the car or smiling with pride after she got a base hit on the softball field.
They text each other photos of storefront windows decorated with anime, or other small reminders they see throughout their days that remind them of Sofi.
“Our lives are destroyed,” Patricia Soto said. “It’s never going to be the same. You learn how to endure, and you carry that pain every single day of your life, every second of every day. I feel like something’s missing. There’s a part of me that’s always missing.”