‘Taxpayer-funded child abuse’: What a congressional investigation found happens at youth treatment centers in Utah and across the country

A U.S. Senate committee spent two years investigating major operators of residential programs and found that “abuse and neglect is the norm.”

Large health care companies running residential treatment programs throughout the country have emphasized making money over the well-being of the children in their care — resulting in young people experiencing “routine harm” like sexual abuse, unnecessary seclusion and chemical restraints, according to a new congressional investigation.

The corporations who were the focus of the investigation largely make that money from federal dollars — mostly in Medicaid and child welfare funding — that are spent sending kids to programs far away from their homes, said Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, said during a Wednesday committee hearing. But at these programs, Wyden said, “abuse and neglect is the norm.”

“They’re set up to let this happen,” Wyden said. “The system is failing — except [for] the providers running these treatment facilities, who have figured out exactly how to turn a profit off taxpayer-funded child abuse.”

(Ting Shen | The New York Times) Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., during a Senate committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 1, 2024.

The Senate finance committee studied youth residential treatment programs for two years prior to releasing Wednesday’s sweeping report, which focused on abuse allegations at four of the country’s major operators of youth residential treatment centers: Universal Health Services, Acadia Healthcare, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health and Vivant Behavioral Healthcare

These companies mostly operate outside of Utah, but Universal Health Services runs two facilities here — Provo Canyon School and Copper Hills Youth Center.

Allegations of abuse and mistreatment at both facilities were documented in the committee’s 130-page report.

At Provo Canyon School, investigators cited state records which showed that a teacher hit a student in the head at the Springville campus. And in another instance, a staffer “pulled a student’s hair for leverage in a restraint.” The committee report also cited reporting from The Salt Lake Tribune, which detailed how a 14-year-old Oregon girl had been chemically injected with sedatives 17 times over a roughly three-month period — a number so alarming that child welfare officials from Oregon flew in to investigate. Another child told federal investigators that she was also frequently chemically sedated, which she described as “a liquid that makes someone fall asleep and calms you down.”

Investigators noted that Utah regulators looked into Copper Hills Youth Center in 2022 after a staffer put a child into a chokehold. There were other instances, according to the report, where Copper Hills staff appeared to escalate a situation that ended in physical violence.

The committee report also highlighted a Tribune investigation from 2020 which showed how larger facilities — including those owned by UHS — tend to have more out-of-state contracts for Medicaid or child welfare funding, and often have more reports of sexual abuse and violence than Utah’s average treatment center.

“American tax dollars are funding the kind of abuse our investigators found,” Wyden said Wednesday. “In some cases, these facilities receive over $1,200 per day, per child, from the Medicaid program. The experiences and trauma these kids are left with reads like something from a horror novel.”

Reagan Stanford, an attorney with Disability Rights Arkansas, said during Wednesday’s hearing that states have become reliant on youth treatment programs because of the “alluring model” it offers.

“They’re selling this idea that they are specialized providers with expertise and high quality people in there that are providing something that can’t be provided anywhere else. And you’ve got a placement for the child and you’ve got all the services they need,” Stanford said. “But the reality is not that.”

Marc Miller, Universal Health Service’s CEO, was invited to testify at Wednesday’s hearing in Washington, D.C. — but he declined the invitation. UHS said in a statement that it vehemently disputes the characterizations of its facilities in the Senate committee report. The company called the report “incomplete and misleading” and said it “provides an inaccurate depiction of care and treatment” provided by the company.

The company said that harm at its facilities is “extremely rare” and that it takes remedial action when something wrong happens.

“The report also wholly fails to recognize the thousands of adolescents that have been successfully treated in our facilities over the years whose lives have been dramatically enhanced and quite possibly saved as a result of the care provided,” UHS’s statement reads.

(Red Banyan) Former residents attend a Senate hearing in Washington, Wednesday, June 12, 2024. The Senate Finance Committee released a report on youth residential treatment programs.

Wyden vowed to work on a bipartisan effort to encourage Congress to bring federal legislation to improve conditions in youth treatment centers. The committee — which does not include any members of Congress from Utah — also encouraged individual states to improve oversight. (There is no federal oversight of youth treatment programs currently, and regulation is handled at the state level.)

The committee also recommended that Medicaid and child welfare offices look to prioritize using funding to keep children in their communities while getting treatment, rather than sending them to a residential center in another state.

Dozens of former residents of youth treatment programs attended Wednesday’s committee hearing, and Wyden thanked them for sharing their stories and being a driving force for change. He said the investigative report was just a first step — and that he would work to have a “bipartisan approach going” that will be “up and running in the fall.”

“Taxpayers should not be put in the position to just constantly be writing these enormous checks,” he said, “for the kind of care that we wish kids were getting, but we end up seeing they don’t actually get.”