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Health, Science & Environment

Leaked Audio Brings More Attention To Utah’s ’Troubled Teen Industry'

Protestors carrying signs march down a sidewalk.
David Fuchs
/
KUER
Paris Hilton has emerged as a vocal critic of the “troubled teen industry.” Her team worked with the advocacy group Breaking Code Silence to leak audio from a recent industry trade group meeting.

Utah’s youth residential treatment centers have been the subject of increased scrutiny in recent months, and audio leaked Wednesday has focused new attention on the internal conversations of industry insiders.

The audio was released by the activist organization Breaking Code Silence. It contains excerpts of an October meeting of the “troubled teen industry’s” largest trade association, the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs or NATSAP.

In it, executive director Megan Stokes can be heard advising the trade association’s members on how to respond to any inquiries that could be part of a Disability Law Center investigation launched a few weeks earlier.

With the DLC being active, I would ask that if people have questions about this to call me … Let’s not email. That is something that would be discoverable if things go to court,” Stokes said on the call. She added that communications to Utah’s Office of Licensing, the state’s primary regulatory agency, should also be carried out over the phone.

Breaking Code Silence pointed to the trade association’s avoidance of written communication as a sign that the industry is putting its own interests ahead of the safety of its clients.

If the child’s welfare is first, there should be transparency,” said the group’s co-founder Jen Robison. “There should be immediate cooperation and desire to be open about all that happens within the facility.”

In a recent interview with KUER, Stokes countered that conclusion.

She said the call was purely information and intended to help NATSAP members prepare to work with the Disability Law Center and protect themselves against having their words taken out of context.

“This was a call with 130 people on it. And if we really wanted to keep things quiet, we would have called each program individually or something,” she said. “It is one of those things where those who are looking for something are going to find it.”

Stokes added that NATSAP has been listening closely to the recent criticism of the industry, which has taken the form of public rallies, online campaigns and celebrity advocacy.

She told KUER her association is considering calling for changes to the transport services that bring many teenagers to programs, typical lengths of stay and increasing unmonitored communication between teenagers and their families where therapeutically appropriate.

Virginia Sudbury, a private attorney with experience in disability law, agreed the leaked phone call suggests the industry won’t go out of its way to be transparent. But she also said the advice isn’t illegal or unusual.

If I was one of the troubled teen places, I — and likely any attorney — would say, ‘Button it up,’” Sudbury said. “I don’t think it would rise to the level of inhibiting an investigation, but it certainly is telling.”

The Disability Law Center is Utah’s official protection and advocacy organization. It’s a designation from the governor that gives the organization special investigative powers to look into instances of abuse and neglect of disabled people. Its authority extends to people with mental illnesses.

The center opened its investigation into Utah’s “troubled teen industry” in October, following an uptick in critical media stories on the industry.

Disability Law Center Attorney Nick Jackson said his organization usually receives full cooperation of the entities they’re investigating and called the phone call “concerning.”

“At this point, despite the recording, we’re hoping to move forward in the normal course of things and try to get to the bottom of some of the reports that we’ve heard and go from there,” he said.

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