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Health, Science & Environment

Disability Rights Organization To Investigate Utah’s Youth Residential Treatment Facilities

Red Rock Canyon School
David Fuchs/ KUER
The Red Rock Canyon School, a youth residential treatment center in St. George, closed last year in the wake of an April riot. Reports of abuse and neglect there are partly what spurred the Disability Law Center’s investigation into the roughly 100 similar facilities in the state.

Utah’s “Troubled Teen Industry” will soon see more scrutiny. The Disability Law Center announced last week that it has launched an investigation into Utah’s wide array of private programs providing behavioral treatment to minors. Those include therapeutic boarding schools, wilderness therapy programs, residential treatment centers and intermediate secure care facilities.

Since 2015, more than 12,000 minors have been sent to Utah for treatment from every state in the country, according to data collected under the Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children — a figure that renders the Beehive State the nation’s lead importer of “troubled” youth. “Although [Youth Residential Treatment Facilities] can be beneficial under appropriate oversight, it is clear that some of Utah's facilities have failed to meet this standard over the years,” the center wrote in a statement released on Friday. “We are determined to shine a light on this system and advocate for change where needed to ensure any child in the care of a [Youth Residential Treatment Facility] receives dignified and safe treatment.”

While the center is a private NGO, it serves as Utah’s official protection and advocacy organization. The designation comes from the governor and enables the center to receive federal funding and equips it with special investigative powers. There are 57 similar organizations across the United States and its territories, each of them working on behalf of a state’s disabled population. The center’s investigation was spurred, in part, by the uptick in media attention to Utah’s “troubled teen industry” that has resulted from a YouTube documentary released by Paris Hilton last month. In it, the celebrity alleges she was mentally and physically abused as a teenage patient at Provo Canyon School, a treatment center in Utah County.

While Hilton’s film has brought new attention to the industry, hers is far from the only voice calling for change. News articles have spotlighted instances of abuse in Utah for decades — and a change.org petition associated with Hilton’s film has gathered more than 100,000 signatures online as of Monday evening.

Even though Hilton's efforts have focused new energy on this industry, the center’s interest in carrying out a formal investigation dates back as early as last April. That’s when a riot at a Red Rock Canyon School, a youth residential treatment facility in St. George, left two dozen students injured and unveiled a pattern of abuse there that would eventually lead to its closure.“After that occurred, we decided that it would be a worthy endeavor to look into not just one company’s facilities but also look across the board at the many facilities that we have in Utah,” said Craig Blake, an attorney with the Disability Law Center.

Blake added that there are a number of factors that elevate the potential for abuse in Utah facilities, including that many of the youth who are sent here are far from their families and communities and that facilities are privately run.

In Utah, oversight stems from the Office of Licensing.

The office will fully comply with all public records statutes pertaining to the investigation, said Heather Barnum, a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Human Services, which oversees the office.

“Media, celebrity, attorney or public attention does not alter the fact the Office of Licensing does not condone abuse,” she wrote in a statement to KUER. “We would like to hear from those who believe they have or are experiencing, or have reason to believe anyone is experiencing or has experienced, abuse of any kind at any DHS licensed facility.”

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