Mike McKell: Paris Hilton’s experiences in teen treatment center led to reform of industry

Now it is time for Congress to address this problem on the federal level

(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.

In September of 2020, Paris Hilton released her documentary, “This is Paris,” sharing her experiences of abuse in a Utah congregate care facility. Since then, hundreds of former residents from similar facilities have come forward and shared harrowing stories of their own.

As I heard other victims’ accounts, I was troubled to learn that a significant number of individuals suffered abuse at facilities within my own state. As a Utah lawmaker, I felt compelled to dive into this problem with the goal to protect our children. April 6 marks one year since my bill, SB127 Human Services Program Amendments, which regulates the industry by adding more oversight, was signed into law.

Congregate care facilities are private youth programs, boarding schools and residential treatment centers, among other institutions, which claim to offer reform programs for troubled teens. Although congregate care facilities deal with extremely vulnerable individuals, until recently, the industry was almost entirely unregulated.

Last year, I was joined by Paris Hilton and other courageous survivors as we advocated for S.B. 127 in front of the Utah Legislature. These survivors’ testimonies confirmed that some individuals in teen treatment centers endure isolation, physical abuse, sexual harassment, lack of proper hygiene resources, forced chemical sedation without a prescription and physical restraint. Several teens in these facilities have been coerced into hiding their full experiences with threats of further violence and punishment from staff. Parents often have no idea there is anything wrong happening to their child.

With the introduction of SB127, incident reporting of physical or chemical restraint, solitary confinement and any physical altercation is now required. The bill also clearly describes when a congregate care program is allowed to use these measures, restricting the free reign facilities had prior to S.B. 127′s passing. Additionally, facilities are now subject to frequent inspections and residents are guaranteed weekly calls home without employee interference.

Since SB127 became law, we’ve seen many positive outcomes in Utah’s congregate care facilities, creating a safer environment for youth who need help. However, change takes time, and issues within the industry were not fully resolved overnight or even over the last 12 months. We’ve kept our eyes open during the past year and identified further issues within Utah’s facilities. That is why I passed another piece of legislation during the 2022 General Session to add additional guidelines to the industry and encourage more accountability.

Though we’ve made significant progress in Utah’s industry, the next step is to pass nationwide legislation. Change needs to be made at the federal level to ensure all teens who attend treatment centers across the U.S. are kept safe. In May, I will be joining Paris and other state leaders in Washington, D.C., to testify in front of Congress about the importance of adding guardrails to congregate care facilities. I look forward to supporting federal legislation on this issue.

Survivors, thank you for sharing your experiences. Thousands of teens will benefit from your strength and courage to stand up and demand change.

It has been an honor to work with Paris and other survivors to help make congregate care facilities in Utah safe for our children. I am excited by the progress we have made for our youth, but my heart aches for those who have suffered because of an unregulated industry. I will continue to fight for our kids and find ways to improve Utah’s congregate care facilities.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Mike McKell at the Capitol, Feb. 9, 2022.

Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, represents District 7 in the Utah Senate.