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It didn’t seem to matter what the teen treatment center did wrong. The state of Utah always gave it another chance.Sent Away is an investigative reporting podcast made in partnership with KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.Subscribe now on Apple or Spotify.

More Than 45,000 Call For Closure Of Provo Canyon School In Online Petition

Between Jan. 1, 2016 and June 30, 2020, local law enforcement responded to 160 emergency calls for service at the Springville campus of Provo Canyon School.
Provo Canyon School via This Is Paris and
Between Jan. 1, 2016 and June 30, 2020, local law enforcement responded to 160 emergency calls for service at the Springville campus of Provo Canyon School.

Provo Canyon School must shut down.

That’s the consensus of more than 45,000 people who, as of Thursday afternoon, have signed an online petition calling for closure of the Utah County-based youth residential treatment center.

The petition was launched earlier this week by Paris Hilton, who says she suffered mental and physical abuse as a patient at the facility as a teenager in the 1990s. It comes just weeks after the release of “This is Paris,” a YouTube documentary that focuses, in part, on Hilton’s firsthand experience at Provo Canyon School and other youth treatment programs.

Hilton released the film and the petition in conjunction with Breaking Code Silence, an online social movement of survivors of abuse within the Troubled Teen Industry who are dedicated to raising awareness and bringing about reform.

A Big Business Industry

The industry is big business in Utah, where a 2016 study by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found it generates hundreds of millions of dollars per year in state gross domestic product.

In fact, the industry is bigger in the Beehive State than anywhere else in the country.

More than 12,000 minors have been sent to Utah for behavioral treatment by state agencies across the country since 2015 — far more than any other state. And at least 794 of those students have sought treatment at Provo Canyon School.

That’s according to data recorded under the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children.

Ownership's Response

Provo Canyon School is owned by Universal Health Services, which purchased the school in 2000, after Hilton’s time there.

The company did not respond to a request comment before the publication of this article. But in a statement released earlier this month, the company emphasized its near-100% patient satisfaction rate in recent years.

The company also warned of the potential consequence of the recent uptick in media scrutiny that has followed the release of Hilton’s documentary.

“We are concerned that the current media coverage may increase the stigma around seeking help for behavioral health concerns,” the company wrote. “This would be a disservice if it leads people away from seeking necessary care and increases the stigma around mental health that providers, organizations, advocates and members of the public have worked so hard – and made much progress over the years – to break.”

Universal Health Services also emphasized that it’s facilities are heavily regulated by state agencies and various non-governmental credentialing organizations.

In Utah, oversight of youth residential treatment centers rests primarily with the Office of Licensing, a division of the Utah Department of Human Services.

Among its many duties, the office is charged with investigating complaints and potential rule violations within the programs it licenses in the state, said agency spokesperson Heather Barnum. “The process is helped (but not ignored without) when the complainant can provide evidence within a reasonable timeframe to adequately investigate and prove Rule violations occurred,” Barnum wrote in an email to KUER. “We welcome any information and evidence please be directed to our office so that we can log and investigate.”

A History Of Abuse

Over the past five years, the office has conducted 341 investigations into Provo Canyon School — 27 of which were found to be “substantiated” by the office’s investigators, she said. Barnum added that “substantiated” violations could relate to minor infractions, such as missing fire extinguishers, and do not necessarily reflect abuse.

However, according to police response data obtained by KUER, between Jan. 1, 2016 and June 30, 2020, local law enforcement agencies responded to more than 100 emergency calls pertaining to abuse, assault and sex offenses at the three locations where Provo Canyon School operates. In total, the Provo, Springville and Orem police departments responded to 314 calls for service at the school over the same time period — an average of roughly once every five days. In the eyes of activist Jen Robison, a co-founder and director of Breaking Code Silence, the petition against Provo Canyon School is just the beginning.

“What we are hoping to achieve is not just about Provo Canyon School. It’s not just Utah,” she said. “It’s about an entire industry which has existed for over 50 years now and has abused thousands upon thousands of children. And that is the bigger conversation that needs to be had.”

Corrected: October 2, 2020 at 6:21 PM MDT
A previous version of this article misstated that private-paying patients who are minors are not counted under Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children.
David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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