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Health, Science & Environment

‘It’s What I’ve Been Waiting 30 Years For:’ Survivors Of Abuse In Troubled Teen Facilities March On Provo Canyon School

A crowd of people at the park raise their hands in the air in response to a speaker’s question.
David Fuchs
/
KUER
After a speaker told the crowd on Friday to raise their hand if they had been abused inside a teen treatment facility, nearly every hand went up.

PROVO - They came from all over the country, some bearing stories of abuse and trauma that they have carried for decades.

The rallying point was a gathering and march calling for the closure of Provo Canyon School, a nearby youth residential treatment center that opened in 1971. Not all of the more than 100 attendees who flocked to Provo’s Riverview Park on Friday were alumni of the school. Others had spent time in different facilities in Utah and across the United States. But they all had the same message: the abuse they say they suffered in teen treatment programs must come to an end.

The event was organized in part by the impact campaign team behind “This is Paris,” a YouTube documentary released in September that directly addresses the abuse Hilton says she experienced at Provo Canyon School in the ‘90s. The film has served as a lightning rod for outcry against the facility since its debut, and the team’s petition calling for the closure of the school had gathered more than 132,000 signatures as of Sunday morning.

Celebrity Paris Hilton carries a protest sign inscribed with the words “Shut Down Provo.”
David Fuchs

Hilton was featured as a speaker at Friday’s rally, where she pledged to use her platform and resources to bring about increased oversight and regulation of the industry. The appearance marked the first time the celebrity had set foot in Provo since the end of her time there as a teenager.

“I was really nervous to come back,” Hilton told KUER. “But as soon as I came back here and saw the hundreds of other survivors, I immediately wasn’t scared anymore because I know that we’re finally being seen and heard.”

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David Fuchs

We are showing by our sheer numbers now that the abuse is real.
Jen Robison

Another prominent event partner was Breaking Code Silence, an online survivor movement dedicated to raising awareness and bringing about industry reform. T-shirts emblazoned with the group’s name and the word “survivor” served as the de facto uniform for attendees.

“We share a story that, to others, seems like a bewildering nightmare,” said Breaking Code Silence cofounder Jen Robison, who said in her speech that she was abused at Provo Canyon School between 2003 and 2005. “We are showing by our sheer numbers now that the abuse is real. The industry is what is broken, and it stops with us.”

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David Fuchs

For some members of the crowd — such as Jessica Ferraro, who drove 10 hours from Santa Monica to attend Friday’s gathering — this moment is decades overdue.

In the early ‘90s, Ferraro said she spent six months in a Massachusetts residential treatment program operated by Straight, Inc., which was in business from 1976 to 1993 and faced lawsuits and governmental investigations in at least seven states.

“I reckon with the damage that it’s done to me every single day,” said Ferraro, adding that her own attempts at personal healing haven’t sufficed. “In coming together, I’m looking to heal myself and I’m looking to join this movement and really make some changes because it’s what I’ve been waiting 30 years for.”

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David Fuchs

Provo Canyon School was purchased by Universal Health Services in 2000. In an Oct. 9 media release, the company said it could not comment on operations or patients’ experiences prior to the acquisition. The statement also emphasized that the school currently provides a structured environment for youth who were not successful in school and home life.

“While we acknowledge there are individuals over the many years who believe they were not helped by the program, we are heartened by the many stories former residents share about how their stay was a pivot point in improving – and in many cases, saving – their lives,” the company said in the statement.

It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just Paris.
Natalia Dominguez

But for recent Provo Canyon School graduate Natalia Dominguez, that statement rang hollow.

Dominguez said she attended the school from 2016 to 2017, after Universal Health Services took over. She’s now just a few months away from earning her certification as a pharmacy technician, and she said that she was over-medicated during her time there. She also recalled instances when staff prevented her from contacting the outside world for up to two months at a time, forced her to receive an involuntary pap smear and required students to wipe menstrual blood, urine and fecal matter from the walls with insufficient cleaning supplies.

“They messed all of us up. They drugged us up, gave us horrible therapy and made us feel like we were worthless,” she said. “It wasn’t just me. It wasn’t just Paris. It wasn’t just the old company that owned Provo Canyon School. It’s still like that now.”

Dominguez also said that two of the young women with whom she attended the school have died by suicide since their graduations — a fact she believes is connected to trauma sustained during their stays.

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David Fuchs

Dominguez wasn’t the only one marching in memory of others.

These are not rehabilitative programs. These are punitive and compliance based programs with a rehabilitative veneer.
Rick Wilson

Rick Wilson drove from Austin to attend Friday’s event. He said he spent close to four years being circulated through a series of youth treatment programs in Utah operated by the Aspen Education Group — an experience he recalls as a “carousel of treatment.” In the years since, he said 15 of his fellow alumni from those programs have died, mostly by suicide.

Wilson described himself as a lonely and scared teenager when he first arrived in Utah for treatment in 2009. But he said it quickly became clear to him that he would not find the help he was desperate to find.

“These are not rehabilitative programs,” he said. “These are punitive and compliance based programs with a rehabilitative veneer.”

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David Fuchs

At nearly 60 years old, David Anderson is still haunted by his experience in a Straight, Inc. program he said he attended in Florida as a teenager.

He was moved to tears when he told a story about a moment when an executive there instructed him and several other male students to pin a female student to the floor so the staff member could mock-rape her.

“I was so close I could see the spittle drooling out of his mouth and dripping onto her face,” he said. “That experience haunted me for decades.”

We can’t burn down the ‘troubled teen’ industry, but we can do specific things to address the unscrupulous [operators] within that industry
David Anderson

Anderson has been involved with support groups for survivors of Straight, Inc. programs for years. He said he’s inspired by the outcry and the solidarity he now sees building and understands the pain and rage that fuels it. But he decided to travel from his home in Atlanta to attend Friday’s event in hopes of sharing a warning with younger generations.

“Fighting angrily with hate in our hearts won’t work,” he said. “I’ve tried it. We’ve tried it. My community has tried it.”

Instead, he urged his fellow survivors to reach for hard facts and specific evidence and actions.

“We can’t burn down the ‘troubled teen’ industry, but we can do specific things to address the unscrupulous [operators] within that industry.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255

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