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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.

‘Bullied’, ‘shamed’, ‘abused’: Why 26 former Vista residents are suing this Utah teen treatment program

Vista Sage Picture, Salt Lake Tribune, March 18, 2022.
Leah Hogsten
/
The Salt Lake Tribune
Vista Sage located at 3149 E 9800 S in Sandy, March 18, 2022.

Editor’s note: This story discusses sexual violence. If you need assistance or resources, Utah’s 24-hour sexual violence crisis and information hotline is available at 1-888-421-1100.


Surrounded by staff, therapists and other kids, M.O. was forced to sit and listen as one person after another berated her.

They told her she was horrible and that she was to blame for everything — including that “one of the best staff members there had to leave.”

She was supposed to be getting therapy during her stay at Vista Dimple Dell, a residential teen treatment center in Sandy.

But in these “accountability circles,” M.O. said she was “totally brainwashed” into believing that the sexual and emotional abuse that she said she says she experienced there in 2018 and 2019 was somehow her fault.

“It was so predatory,” M.O. said in an interview. “They bullied us. ... They picked on us every day. They made us feel bad about ourselves. They drove us against one another.”

M.O. is one of 26 former residents of Vista who filed an amended lawsuit Wednesday against the facility, which operates two locations in Sandy and a third in Magna. The group of plaintiffs are also suing Toni Mazzaglia, Kristin Adams and Ryan Pepper, who are licensed treatment providers employed by Vista, according to a complaint.

The plaintiffs, who are now adults, were residents at Vista’s facilities between 2003 and 2019. They are identified in court records by their initials “to protect their privacy as victims of trauma and assault,” the complaint states.

Vista is one of the more than 100 teen treatment programs in Utah, which cater to parents and out-of-state agencies who care for struggling teenagers. Several programs have been accused of abusive tactics that left young people traumatized. Some have faced lawsuits, though none in recent history have been accused by dozens of former clients in a single legal action.

“The relationship that each of these claims have with another really paint the complete picture of what was happening at Vista,” said Michael Young, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, “and why the behavior at Vista wasn’t OK.”

The lawsuit alleges that Vista’s staff engaged in harmful group therapy tactics, shamed young people for expressing their sexuality, put clients in painful physical restraints and gave them unneeded medication. It also alleges that the program engaged in a “referral scheme” where it would pay education consultants to recommend its program to parents with children who were struggling in traditional school settings.

“One of the major motivating factors for them is they want to tell their story,” Young said.. “They finally feel empowered to say, ‘What happened to me is not OK, and I’m going to say something about it.’ “

Vista denied the allegations in a statement released Wednesday, which described them as “wholly without merit.”

“We believe our clients have been well-served throughout the years, while also recognizing the complexities of providing mental health treatment,” the statement reads. “The Vista companies, without reservation, deny the scurrilous, false and defamatory allegations against the Vista companies contained in the [complaint] filed today.”

‘Shamed’ for their sexuality

R.P. was 16 years old in 2008 when her parents sent her to Vista on the advice of an education consultant in California. She remembered telling her therapist at Vista that she had romantic feelings for another girl. He responded by saying she was “wrong” and “confused,” she said in an interview.

After that confession, the therapist told her on several occasions that he had an assignment for her: He would take her to the mall, and she would have to get three boys to give her their phone numbers.

“I felt confused. I felt scared, really nervous for this assignment,” R.P. said. “Looking back on it, I feel angry. I wasn’t safe enough [then] to feel angry. I was really dependent on him and his approval.”

That therapist never took R.P. to the mall for that assignment. But he did take her to a charter school associated with Vista just before she graduated from her program, she said — and instructed her to only speak with boys.

“It’s completely inappropriate,” R.P. said. “I want to protect that younger version of me from him. It’s been an untangling of learning what wasn’t mine to take on, like the shame that I was feeling. That wasn’t because of me, that was because of him.”

Multiple former residents said in the lawsuit that they were “shamed” for their sexuality and gender identity, and were treated in “demeaning” ways as a result.

One plaintiff, identified as R.F., said he was forced to endure isolation as punishment because he was questioning his sexuality and kissed another boy. Vista’s therapists, the lawsuit alleges, disclosed R.F.’s sexuality to his parents without his consent.

Another plaintiff, listed as R.G. in court papers, said they were told by a therapist that they were “confused” after expressing their sexuality.

“Vista staff and others took measures to emphasize R.G.’s sexuality as a survivor of sexual assault,” the complaint reads, “and would slut-shame them for how they dressed and presented themselves.”

Harmful group therapy

Several of the plaintiffs also described feeling humiliated and traumatized in group therapy, and were at times forced to say mean things to other clients or risk losing “points” and being sent to a lower level in the program — putting them further away from graduating and leaving the facility.

The lawsuit alleges that one plaintiff, M.M., reported she was forced to participate in a group activity “wherein residents voted on if other residents deserved to live or die.”

One former resident, identified as R.C.T., said that after a student attempted suicide, he and the others “were encouraged to report that they were disappointed in her.”

Another plaintiff, identified as A.A., said the staff told her she “acted like a princess, like Paris Hilton,” and was “forced to wear a plastic crown and carry a plastic wand.” During a group therapy session, the lawsuit alleges, she “was forced to get on all fours” and “be ‘treated like a dog,’” as other students were encouraged to push her over.

The plaintiffs said they were tied together with string to students they did not get along with, sometimes for days at a time. Others said staff isolated them, used physical restraints and improperly medicated or sedated them.

Vista also used a “point system,” the complaint alleges, where in certain phases of the program, “a patient could not talk or make eye contact with anyone.” Instead, they had to use their fingers to tell staff if they needed to use the bathroom, and other needs, the lawsuit states.

‘Groomed and abused’

M.O. arrived at Vista’s Dimple Dell location in Sandy, from out of state, in September 2018. Her dad remembers standing on a porch with one of the therapists after dropping his 17-year-old daughter off.

“I said to her, ‘I’m trusting you with my daughter. Take care of her,’” the father, who is being identified as P.O., told The Tribune. “She looked me in the eye and affirmed me. “Later, I find out that she [was] working to destroy my daughter.”

“The anger that I have for her,” P.O. added,” is only replaced by the concern I have for the others who need help and might … fall to their scheme.”

While at Vista, M.O. said she was “groomed and abused” by a male staff member. The Tribune is not identifying the staff member because he is not a defendant in the lawsuit, and he has not been criminally charged.

The first time M.O. met him, “I was sitting outside alone on a porch, and I was crying because I felt like nobody there liked me,” M.O. said. That feeling had been reinforced by her own therapist, she said, who told her she was her “least favorite client,” the complaint states.

The male staff member, she said, approached her and said, ‘Well, I like you, I’ll be your friend.”

“Vista left me to feel so alone that I was willing to accept love from anyone,” M.O. said.

Before M.O. arrived at Vista, “a staff member had warned superiors and directors” about this male staff member’s “inappropriate contact and flirtations” with a 14-year-old student at Vista, according to the lawsuit. And, according to M.O. and the lawsuit, the staff was “more than aware” of what he was doing with M.O., the complaint states, but did not stop him or protect the children in their care.

The complaint alleges that the male staff member inappropriately touched and sexually assaulted M.O. in 2018 and 2019, telling M.O. that he loved her but to keep their relationship “secret.” M.O. wrote in a journal about what happened, which Mazzaglia confiscated and threatened to burn, the lawsuit states.

“Law enforcement was never notified,” according to the lawsuit, and the male staff member “was let go from Vista” sometime between January and June 2019. M.O. graduated from Vista in June 2019.

When P.O. learned what his daughter said happened, he flew to Utah and met with Mazzaglia and Pepper, who took “extremely defensive positions blaming M.O. for her assault,” the lawsuit states.

“It was already a stressful situation that she was even there to begin with,” P.O. told The Tribune. “I’m no therapist. I’m not trained in this. That’s why I went to this organization, because I don’t know how to deal with this.”

M.O. said she wanted to join the lawsuit to prevent any other kids from being harmed at Vista.

“There are so many parents, to this day, who are still sending their children to Vista,” she said. “Since no one has held them accountable, they’re able to keep just perpetuating the same abusive tactics over and over and over again. And I would like to put an end to that.”

None of the defendants named in the lawsuit had filed a formal response to the complaint as of Wednesday.

Updated: March 23, 2022 at 9:26 PM MDT
This story has been updated with a response from Vista.
Jessica Miller is a legal affairs and criminal justice for The Salt Lake Tribune, where she has worked since 2011. Her reporting has earned numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting in 2017. Jessica can be reached at jmiller@sltrib.com.
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