‘This ain’t Utah’: Advocates led by Paris Hilton urge lawmakers to pass reforms for ‘troubled-teen’ treatment centers

Legislation gets unanimous approval in committee and some say it doesn’t go far enough on restraints, drugs and isolation rooms.

Jeff Netto never wanted to tell anyone what happened when he was 13, how he was put into seclusion, physically restrained and given sedative shots while he was at a Utah “troubled-teen” facility.

That all changed when celebrity Paris Hilton released a documentary last year detailing her own allegations of abuse and mistreatment at Provo Canyon School, where she was sent in the 1990s.

After watching her documentary, Netto’s family started asking questions about what he experienced at his own school. And he started answering them.

That conversation led Netto to sit before a Utah Senate committee Monday, where he tearfully recounted his experiences and urged them to pass a bill that would bring more oversight to the largely for-profit, private industry that has thrived in his home state.

As a “local Utah boy,” he said, he needed his state’s senators to know how he was abused — and to know that it’s still happening to the children from across the country being sent here for treatment.

“I didn’t want this exposed,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “I don’t want to tell anybody this stuff. Please look at this bill seriously. It’s happening in our state. This ain’t Utah. That’s not how Utah acts. This is not how we treat our kids.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Netto embraces his mother, Robyn Fairfield, after testifying in support of SB-127 to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Standing Committee in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Netto testified after Hilton, who flew to Utah, to attend Monday’s hearing in support of SB127, a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork. She recounted being taken from her bed in the middle of the night and forced on a plane. When she got to Provo Canyon School, she was given clothes with a label.

“I was no longer Paris,” she said. “I was only number 127.”

While at Provo Canyon School, Hilton said she 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.

“Talking about something so personal was — and is still — terrifying,” she said during her testimony. “But I can not go to sleep at night knowing there are children enduring the same abuse.”

Members of the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice committee unanimously supported McKell’s bill, which places limits on the use of restraints and sedatives and requires more inspections.

But some on the committee didn’t think the proposal went far enough. Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, wanted to add an immediacy clause to ensure the reforms go into effect the day the governor signed it, instead of waiting the customary few months. Moved by the testimony, Thatcher also questioned whether a commission should be formed to keep investigating.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this after running years of legislation to get rid of all of our damn commissions,” he said. “But we might need another damn commission to dig in and really get to the bottom of all of these issues.”

Some of the lawmakers were apologetic to those who testified.

“This has been a problem, obviously, in Utah for a long, long time,” Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City, told Hilton. “And frankly, we failed to protect you. And I’m sorry about that. This is about children. This is about our families. This is about our reputation. Our action on this could not be more urgent.”

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, became emotional as she spoke of her own children, saying she couldn’t imagine them going through a similar experience. She called it “embarrassing” that this had been happening in Utah.

“This is beyond what I ever thought could be possible,” she said. “To think that it’s happening in 2021 is even more scary.”

Hilton said after the hearing that she cried as the senators called to not just pass McKell’s bill but to do even more.

“To hear their reaction and them wanting to add even more restrictions and more strict laws to this bill was just a dream come true,” she said. “I was just so happy.”

She called the Utah legislation a “first step,” and said she will also push for legislation at a national level.

“We want to take this to a federal level,” she said, “and bring it to all 50 states. Because this should not happen anywhere on this planet.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paris Hilton bumps elbows with Sen. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, after a vote on SB-127 to the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Standing Committee in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Listen to KUER’s report on the troubled-teen reform bill

If passed, McKell’s bill would be the first time Utah legislators put more oversight in place on the nearly 100 youth residential treatment centers in Utah in 15 years.

McKell estimated Monday that there are about 5,600 kids currently at residential treatment programs in Utah, the majority of which are for-profit, private companies.

“These are kids in the state of Utah who are being treated as they shouldn’t be,” he said during the committee hearing. “And it’s up to us, as legislators, to take the proper steps to ensure the safety guardrails are there and to help them.”

McKell said his concerns with the industry stem from cases he has seen as a personal injury attorney. He credited reporting from The Salt Lake Tribune — which has detailed allegations of abuse, mistreatment and chemical sedation at Utah facilities — for exposing many of the problems his legislation addresses.

McKell’s bill would require treatment centers to document any instance in which staff used physical restraints and seclusion and submit reports to the Utah Office of Licensing, which is the industry’s primary regulator. It would prohibit programs from sedating residents or using mechanical restraints, like a straitjacket, without the office’s prior authorization.

The bill also requires the Office of Licensing to conduct four inspections each year, both announced and unannounced. Public records show that the office currently inspects most facilities just once a year.

“There’s a lot of money in this industry. It’s a large, large industry,” McKell said. “And I have become increasingly concerned that the appropriate amount of regulation has not caught up.”

Public records show that, in the past five years, nearly 12,000 children have come through Utah to youth treatment centers, some bouncing from one place to another.

Some of the youths are sent by their parents, while others are ordered into treatment by a judge after breaking the law. There are also children in foster care who are brought here because no place in their home state will take them.

McKell’s bill has had early support from the troubled-teen industry.

Provo Canyon School administrators said they back McKell’s bill and the transparency it will bring. The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, to which many of these facilities belong, is also on board, though its leaders say they’d like lawmakers to adopt clarifying amendments. There’s been little public opposition to the measure, but Monday is the first time there will be a public hearing on the bill.

One of the driving forces pushing for reform is the online movement Breaking Code Silence, an activist group of former residents who say they were mistreated at centers in Utah and elsewhere. The group’s top government relations coordinator, Caroline Lorson, also testified on Monday about the need for more oversight.

“These kids are not a commodity,” she said. “They are not to be shipped across state lines just to be placed in subpar, prison-style housing, just for the $16,000 paychecks attached to them.”

The bill now goes to the full Senate for a vote.