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New regulations for the state’s ‘troubled teen’ industry win final legislative approval

This would be the first time Utah legislators have put more oversight in place on the industry in 15 years.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) In this Feb. 8, 2021, file photo, celebrity Paris Hilton recounts her experiences as a teenager at Provo Canyon School during a hearing on SB127 before the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee of the Utah Legislature. The bill won final approval Tuesday night in the Utah House and next goes to the governor for signature.

The Utah House gave final approval Tuesday to a bill that would enhance oversight of the state’s “troubled-teen” industry and place limits on their use of restraints, drugs and isolation rooms.

Passage of the bill comes after celebrity Paris Hilton gave emotional testimony during a committee hearing earlier this session that detailed the abuse and mistreatment she says she endured while at a youth residential treatment center in Utah.

If signed by the governor, this would be the first time Utah legislators have put more oversight in place on the nearly 100 youth residential treatment centers in 15 years.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, said Tuesday that the proposal was an “essential bill” to add “some guardrails and some oversight that, frankly, has been lacking.”

“If there is anything that we do need a little bit of protection over, it is the care of children,” he said. “And so I think this really addresses some core things to hopefully bring some reason to the bad actors and allow the good actors to proceed with doing what can be a very valuable service.”

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. The bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Mike McKell, has estimated that about 90% of those children are from other states.

Some are sent by their parents, while others are ordered into treatment by a judge after breaking the law or are foster kids brought here because no place in their home state will take them.

The Salt Lake Tribune has detailed allegations of abuse, mistreatment and chemical sedation at these Utah facilities.

Under the bill, SB127, treatment centers would be required to document any instance in which staff used physical restraints and seclusion and to submit reports to the Utah Office of Licensing, which is the industry’s primary regulator. The proposal would prohibit programs from sedating residents or using mechanical restraints, like a straitjacket, without the office’s prior authorization.

The bill would also require the Office of Licensing to conduct four inspections each year — both announced and unannounced — and would appropriate $638,000 to fund eight new full-time state licensing employees to achieve that aim. Public records show that the office currently inspects most facilities just once a year.

Two efforts to amend the bill failed in the House on Tuesday, including one proposal that would have allowed these treatment facilities to induce pain on a child when necessary “to protect an individual’s health or safety.”

Rep. Rex Shipp, who proposed that change, said it would help center staff control violent children.

“Sometimes they can damage other participants in the program or even staff, and so this sometimes will help — maybe a bent wrist type thing to help restrain them,” said Shipp, R-Cedar City.

Several lawmakers spoke in support of the amendment, including Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, who said his daughter worked at a facility like this for a time and that it wasn’t uncommon to “grab someone’s thumb and twist it” in order to get compliance. And Rep. Travis Seegmiller, R-St. George, said he has a “close friend” who runs one of these programs and could imagine a “rare instance or two” in which inflicting pain would be necessary.

But Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, spoke against the amendment, noting that one of her children had spent time in a youth treatment facility and that she would be “very uncomfortable thinking that staff felt like it was OK to induce pain in any situation.”

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, also argued that a youth treatment facility would always find a reason to claim it had been necessary to inflict pain — a rationale he said was likely behind many of the abuses lawmakers sought to ban in this bill.

“All the things on the list have been done in this industry and when they were done, they were done in the name of the safety of that child and the safety of the other kids there,” he said. “It’s just so easy to cross over that line. And to me, we need to get to a point where it needs to be set up and the child can be restrained without causing pain to them.”

Rep. Jeff Stenquist, R-Draper, also proposed a failed amendment Tuesday that would have loosened the requirement that facilities report the use of a restraint or seclusion from within one business day to within three business days.

Brammer spoke against that effort, noting that restraint or seclusion on someone who’s not in prison should require “immediate reporting.”

“This could mean that someone could be secluded for three days before anyone knows about it or they could be restrained for three days,” he said. “And it may be just a quick restraint or quick seclusion, but it’s a big enough deal that we do want the regulatory body to understand what’s happening and to know about it as soon as possible.”

The bill passed with a 70-2 vote, with Rep. Francis Gibson and Rep. Adam Robertson voting in opposition. It now moves to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.

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