Feels like ‘being kidnapped’: What we found looking into troubled-teen transporters
Utah is the epicenter of the country's so-called "troubled-teen industry." Parents, social workers and probation officers send kids to these facilities when they don't know what else to do with them. In fact, since 2015, some 20,000 teens have been sent away to these Utah treatment centers. But there's been lax oversight and abuse has festered — things like rapes, assaults and deaths.
KUER has partnered with The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports on an investigative podcast that looks at what has gone wrong and why the state has failed to protect these kids. It's called Sent Away.
Episodes 1 and 2 are available right now wherever you get your podcasts, and they will air Tuesday at 7 p.m. on KUER.
Pamela McCall sat down with Sent Away co-host Jessica Miller of The Salt Lake Tribune reporter. She co-authored an article to go along with the first two episodes. It focuses on how teens are transported to the state and efforts to regulate that business.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pamela McCall: Introduce us first to Stephanie Balderston, who was sent away to Utah in 2008, and tell us about her transport.
Jessica Miller: The day before her 17th birthday, Stephanie's grandma took her out for dinner and a movie. She thought it was just this normal birthday celebration. But in the parking lot of the local Chili's, this stranger — a man she never met before — pulled her into a car and drove away. She didn't know who this person was. She obviously was very scared, but her family did [know who he was]. They had hired him to take her from her home in Colorado to a facility in Utah.
PM: They actually wrestled her into the back of the car?
JM: That's right, and that's not an uncommon way that a lot of teens are getting to these programs, particularly in Utah. Parents can hire a transport service where they pay several thousand dollars for someone to do essentially that. A lot of times it happens in their own homes. They're going into a bedroom in the middle of the night while a kid is sleeping, and they wake up the kid, pull them out of bed — say things like 'you can do the easy way or the hard way' — and they put them in a car, put them on a plane and bring them to Utah.
PM: Why are these transports so surprising and sometimes violent?
JM: They're that way by design. The reason why the industry uses this is because there's a fear that if a kid knows 'we're taking you away to a treatment program' — that they'll run away, that they'll fight back. And sometimes it can be violent because these kids don't know what's going on. They think they're being kidnapped. They don't know that their parents paid for this to happen to them.
PM: What's the impact of this trauma?
JM: You're essentially starting off what's supposed to be a treatment program with this incredibly traumatic event where you feel like you're being kidnapped. For a lot of the women and men that we've spoken with, this transport is the most traumatic thing that's happened to them. They have nightmares. They think about this all the time. And it's something that has just never gone away for them.
PM: Let's listen in. Here's Stephanie Balderston.
Stephanie Balderston (on tape): To this day, like in Costco or something, you see some random person. And in my head, it's him. And I freeze and I'm terrified. And I start having flashbacks of my transport.
PM: So what kind of regulation is there on these transport companies?
JM: Surprisingly, there is almost no regulation at all on this part of the teen treatment industry. They are allowed to use handcuffs, blindfolds, hoods. There's only one state in the U.S. right now that does have regulations — that's Oregon and that only happened a year ago. So up to this point, this has been almost entirely unregulated throughout the entire country.
PM: What's gone on here in Utah?
JM: Utah Sen. Mike McKell passed a bill last year that brought reform to the teen treatment industry. And this part of the industry, this transport, is obviously something that has caught his eye. So this year he brought a bill not to regulate this part of the industry, but just to figure out how big it is here. The bill passed. It's going to require anyone who transports a kid across state lines into Utah to be registered with the state, but it doesn’t at this point enforce any other type of oversight or regulation.
PM: How much impact can state laws actually have?
JM: With this part of the industry in particular, Sen. McKell thinks that maybe the state-by-state approach isn't the way to go. He can only regulate what happens in Utah. But when we're talking about a transport industry, most of these kids aren't from Utah. So trying to regulate that as a state senator can be very difficult. He has made the argument that if we really want to change this part of the industry, this is something that will need to come with federal oversight and not a state-by-state approach.