Utah legislature looks to improve ‘troubled teen’ industry

Media personality Paris Hilton testifies before the Utah Legislature’s Senate Education Committee during a recent hearing on Capitol Hill about how the state regulates programs for troubled teens. (Decker Westenburg)

Lawmakers, former “troubled teens” and their advocates are discussing whether the state is doing enough to regulate Utah’s troubled teen industry.

During hearings at Utah’s Capitol Hill earlier this month, the specifics of SB127 received unanimous approval in committee.

Lawmakers question if the six areas of proposed improvement in the industry are enough. (Decker Westenburg)

Paris Hilton, a media personality, testified before state lawmakers about her experiences inside a Utah program for troubled teens during the 1990s, which were highlighted in her 2020 YouTube originals documentary, “This is Paris.”

Hilton was sent to Provo Canyon School at age 17, and she was there for 11 months. She claims she was abused mentally and physically, and that staff members would beat her and force her to take unknown pills. She said she was also often sent to solitary confinement without clothing.

Last fall, Hilton led a protest in Utah calling for the closure of the Provo Canyon School that included supporters from all 50 states. Since the release of her documentary last summer, she has called on local and national leaders to action because the troubled teen residential treatment industry affects children from all 50 states. According to bill sponsor Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, there are currently 5,600 children in 240 licensed facilities in Utah. 

Although children are often placed in these facilities against their will, Jeff Netto shared his experiences as a “local Utah boy” in Utah’s homegrown for-profit industry with legislators. He spoke of repeatedly being placed in a five-point harness and not being allowed to use the restroom. 

After recounting his experiences, he pleaded with lawmakers to pass legislation to protect Utah’s children. Netto, who now owns and operates a local Utah business, shared that he made it out, but that he “doesn’t know anyone else who did.”

“Utah is supposedly built on family values, but the neglect from this state has brought us here today,” Hilton said. 

Breaking Code Silence senior government relations coordinator Caroline Lorson has worked to bring attention to the industry that profits off of troubled teens. Her organization seeks to highlight the lack of regulation in the teen residential treatment industry.

“There is not an industry as unregulated as this one is,” Lorson said.

Survivors’ experiences caused lawmakers to question if they were “doing enough” to regulate the industry. 

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake, shared that as a mother of six children she could not imagine any of these circumstances happening to them. She said the bill “did not go far enough” to regulate the industry. 

In an effort to promote change quickly, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, called for an immediacy clause and questioned if it was time to create a commission to address major issues within the industry.

Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, a physician raised the question about whether a conversation should be had on forbidding such programs. 

When Hilton’s documentary was originally released, she called for the closure of Provo Canyon School and similar facilities and endorsed a petition seeking the facility’s closure, citing what she said is a historic legacy of abuse. The petition has over 180,000 signatures and counting. 

The petition states there is “no real oversight to protect the children’s human rights and safety. Despite policy and advocacy efforts over the past decade, reform has not happened and these facilities continue to profit off youth.”

Lawmakers questioned why Utah has become a magnet for teen residential treatment programs. As of Feb. 19, the bill is still waiting for final legislative action.

Paris Hilton speaks at a rally near Provo Canyon School on October 9th, 2020. (Jack Dudley)
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