Senate bill seeks to reform troubled teen industry

The Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee unanimously passed a bill that aims to reform youth residential treatment programs in Utah.

Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork

According to Spanish Fork Republican Sen. Michael McKell, sponsor of Senate Bill 127, Utah currently houses around 5,600 hundred minors in congregate care programs, many of whom come from out of state. The private programs can vary from outdoor therapy to therapeutic schools and focus on the rehabilitation of at-risk youth who either suffer from chemical dependency or behavioral disorders.

Several people spoke in support of the bill, telling of their own experiences in programs that sold therapy to troubled teens. Caroline Lorson is the Senior Government Relations Coordinator with Break Code Silence, an advocacy group that seeks to raise awareness about issues within the troubled teen industry. She said during the committee hearing that a lack of regulation led to her own personal experience where she was taken from her home and transported to a troubled teen program where she experienced abuse and neglect.

“At that time, I had no idea that I would not see freedom again for 29 months. There I was incarcerated, institutionalized, treated like a felon, yet my only crime was needing help… this same treatment model is still happening. There is not an industry out there that provides treatment to such vulnerable populations that is so completely unregulated,” she said.

Senate Bill 127 would put restrictions on how the programs can interact with teens, including who can use physical force and when it is necessary. A provision in the bill bans cruel practices such as strip and cavity searches or inflicting pain so that children comply. The measure would also require any critical incidents be reported to the state with one day of happening, and would allow for unannounced site visits from the state and for all programs to maintain a suicide prevention policy.

Lorson also said many of these programs have low success rates, with some treatment models having a success rate of around 6 percent, including those in Utah. Nate Crippes, an attorney with the Disability Law Center, told the committee that while Senate Bill 127 is a good first step, much more work needs to be done to fix the industry.

“While this is a great first step in regulating an industry that has been ignored for far too long. This bill puts in place limits for restraints and seclusion for youth residential treatment facilities. However, a systemic effort to reduce the reliance on these harmful interventions is needed,” he said.

Media personality Paris Hilton also spoke on behalf of SB127. Recounting her own experiences at a youth residential treatment program in Provo, Hilton said she was verbally, mentally and physically abused on a daily basis and that she witnessed sexual abuse.

“I can not go to sleep at night knowing there are children enduring the same abuse,” Hilton told Utah lawmakers.

The bill passed out of committee on Monday and is now heading to the Senate for a vote.