Utah Senate moves quickly on new regulations for the state’s ‘troubled-teen’ industry

This bill would be the first time Utah legislators passed new rules for residential treatment centers in 15 years.

(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.

The Utah Senate voted unanimously in favor of a bill that would greatly enhance the oversight of the state’s lucrative “troubled-teen” industry, and place limits on the use of restraints, drugs and isolation rooms.

Thursday’s vote came days after celebrity Paris Hilton and two others gave emotional testimony during a committee hearing detailing the abuse and mistreatment they say they endured while at youth residential treatment centers in Utah.

The Senate has one more vote on SB127 before it heads to the House of Representatives for consideration.

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

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, has had no opposition so far. The biggest criticism from fellow senators is that it doesn’t go far enough to root out abuse and keep kids safe.

McKell said on the Senate floor Thursday that some have been dismissive of accounts of former residents, saying the abuses happened long ago and that kids aren’t experiencing the same thing now.

“We still have problems today,” he said.

He read several emails from former staffers of “troubled-teen” facilities, who said they quit after witnessing “horrific abuses” that were systemic where they worked as recently as 2019.

McKell highlighted that his bill would increase the number of inspections, limit when staff can put kids in restraints and ban kids from restraining one another. The bill also bans strip searches, with limited exceptions, and mandates that children be allowed to have weekly communication with their families that is not monitored by staff.

SB127 would also ban chemical restraints, except in rare circumstances, which is when children are given a sedative shot to stop them from moving. He pointed to recent reporting in The Salt Lake Tribune, which outlined how a 14-year-old girl from Oregon had been chemically restrained 17 times in a three-month period while at Provo Canyon School in 2019.

“That’s a travesty,” he said. “That shouldn’t happen.”

The bill would cost $638,000 to implement, with the money used to hire eight new full-time state licensors who would be required to visit facilities quarterly for announced and unannounced inspections.

Several senators spoke in support of the bill on Thursday. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said the industry is deeply entrenched in Utah, and he appreciated that McKell’s bill did not try to ban the facilities or run them out of town.

“This is a long established business type in Utah,” he said. “Something Utah is known all over the country and the world for. It brings in, I think, between $300 and $400 million in revenue. That doesn’t justify them abusing children, I’m not saying that. But if we were to overreact to this, if we were to chase this industry out of our state, they would just move to another state that has no experience in regulating them and start all over again.”

Weiler has some ties to the “troubled-teen” industry. The law firm he works for represented a facility that regulators threatened to close in 2019 after a riot and allegations of abuse. He told The Tribune last November that his role in that was minimal, and that he gave his “perspective,” but another attorney primarily handled the case.

McKell estimated Thursday that about 90% of the children that are in Utah’s youth facilities are from other states.

Public records show that, in the past five years, nearly 12,000 children have come through Utah’s 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.

A research brief from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute estimated the industry pulled in $328 million in revenue in 2015 alone and accounted for 6,400 jobs.