Effort to stop abuse at Utah’s ‘troubled-teen’ centers is sailing through the Legislature

Legislation would boost inspections, stop the use of sedatives and require tracking of physical restraints.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork, answers questions about SB0127S01, Human Services Program Amendments, in the House Health and Human Services Committee, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

A bill that would put in place new regulations for Utah’s “troubled-teen” industry is one vote away from reaching the governor’s desk.

SB127, sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, sailed through a House committee hearing Tuesday without a single opposing vote. The legislation already passed the Senate unanimously, and there’s been no public opposition.

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

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

He noted that while some former residents, like celebrity Paris Hilton, have shared stories of abuse they say they endured decades ago, many of these issues still persist.

“We talk about problems that have happened in the past,” he said. “What I’d suggest to this committee is that many, many of the problems that we see are recent and are still currently happening. And that’s why this bill is important.”

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 the office currently inspects most facilities just once a year.

Members of the House Health and Human Services committee unanimously voted in favor of McKell’s bill with little discussion.

“I think it’s about time we move along in this direction,” said Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo. “It’s been far too long.”

The only resistance came from Rep. Raymond Ward, a Bountiful Republican who is also a physician. He questioned whether sedatives and “chemical restraints” were properly defined under the bill. He called it a “big grey area” that he wanted to work with the Office of Licensing to better define.

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, testified on Tuesday, telling Utah lawmakers that she’s heard from former residents who spoke of being abused or neglected under the guise of treatment.

She said that back when the industry began, it was believed that “tough love” and being harsh with children would change their behaviors. But those practices, she said, don’t work — especially with children who already have gone through traumatic events.

“We must do better,” she said. “We must do better by these kids. I hope Utah will act on behalf of these kids — because there are so many in the state — to pass Senate Bill 127 and also to continue this movement toward providing true evidence-based treatment that will help these kids.”

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.