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Amid abuse allegations at Provo Canyon School, state legislators push for transparency

By Ryne Williams And Connor Richards daily Herald - | Feb 12, 2021
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Paris Hilton poses for a photo in front of the Provo Canyon School during a protest Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, in Provo. Hilton was in Utah to lead a protest outside a boarding school where she alleges she was abused physically and mentally by staff when she was a teenager. Hilton, now 39, went public with the allegations in a documentary and wants a school that she says left her with nightmares and insomnia for years to be shut down. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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An aerial photo shows Provo Canyon School campus on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, in Springville. Public records show a teenager from Oregon's foster care system was injected with sedatives while staying at the youth residential treatment facility in Utah. A Utah lawmaker is now proposing new regulations on the youth-treatment industry spotlighted by abuse allegations by celebrity Paris Hilton. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

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Pictured is the Provo Canyon School's Springville campus in Springville, Utah on February 12, 2021.

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Paris Hilton wipes her eyes after speaking at a committee hearing at the Utah State Capitol, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Hilton has been speaking out about abuse she says she suffered at a boarding school in Utah in the 1990s, and she testified in front of state lawmakers weighing new regulations for the industry. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

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Pictured is the Provo Canyon School's Springville campus in Springville, Utah on February 12, 2021.

The Provo Canyon School recently received national attention over allegations of abuse from former students at the residential youth treatment center. In response, Republican Spanish Fork Sen. Mike McKell is sponsoring a bill that would increase transparency and oversight at residential facilities throughout the state.

Reported abuses at Provo Canyon School

Media personality Paris Hilton testified at the Utah State Capitol on Monday during a Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice Committee meeting to discuss legislation that could lead to more oversight for facilities like the Provo Canyon School.

In her testimony, Hilton described 20 years of recurring nightmares as a result of her time at the Provo Canyon School.

At 16 years old, Hilton was taken from her home and transported to Utah to attend the Provo Canyon School, the fourth facility to which she had been admitted.

“I was verbally, mentally and physically abused on a daily basis,” Hilton said. “I was cut off from the outside world and stripped of all of my human rights. I was not allowed to be myself, hold my own opinions or even speak. Without a diagnosis I was forced to consume medication that made me feel numb and exhausted. I didn’t breathe fresh air or see the sunlight for 11 months.”

She added that there was no privacy at the facility. She was observed while using the restroom and even while showering.

Hilton characterized the facility as hell on earth, saying she cried herself to sleep each night.

Staff members at the facility, according to Hilton, were evil and sadistic, seeming to enjoy their power to abuse children.

Often times, Hilton would be put in solitary confinement for no reason. The room was filled with scratch marks, smeared blood and no bathroom.

“Children were restrained, hit, thrown into walls, strangled and sexually abused regularly at Provo,” Hilton said. “I could not report this because all communication with my family was monitored and censored.”

Another report from the Salt Lake Tribune reported that a 14-year-old girl who had been in the Oregon foster care system was sent to the Provo Canyon School in an attempt to find a place that could help her.

Over her three-month span at the facility, the girl was reportedly pinned down by employees almost 30 times, assaulted by fellow students at least four times and injected with sedatives 17 times.

In a statement from the school, Universal Health Services pointed to when it took ownership of the facility, in August of 2000, and said it could not comment on operations and patient experiences before this date.

The statements also say that the school does not use solitary confinement, mechanical restraints, seclusion, isolation and medication as a form of discipline or use for sedation.

“One thing is clear, youth and residential care are not protected by Utah’s current laws,” Hilton said. “Imagine it being your child who’s being subjected to physical, mental, psychological and emotional abuse on a daily basis.”

In a written statement on Tuesday, Provo Canyon School said it supports legislative efforts to increase transparency at the facility.

“As always, our singular goal is patient safety,” the statement said. “As a matter of policy and procedure, we have always operated within the requirements of our reporting obligations.”

According to the statement, the school does not use solitary confinement or mechanical restraints and “eliminated the use of seclusion or isolation some time ago.”

“Licensed physicians DO NOT prescribe or use any drug or medication as a means of discipline. The infrequent use of medications to assist a patient in gaining control is within the standard of care and the requirements of Utah code,” Provo Canyon School said. “We do not use medication to sedate, render a patient immobile or restrict them in their ability to continue to engage actively in their care.”

The statement continued, “Leadership and staff are highly committed to providing effective treatment, compassionate care and a nurturing environment for the students and families we serve.”

Provo Canyon School sent the Daily Herald a copy of its written statement when asked to comment on the abuse allegations and requested further questions to be sent for review.

The Daily Herald submitted that list of questions on Thursday afternoon, but had not received any further response as of Friday evening’s deadline.

Senate Bill 127

A bill being considered by the Utah State Legislature seeks to increase oversight of Utah’s “troubled-teen” industry and, by doing so, prevent the kind of abuses to which Hilton and others have testified.

Senate Bill 127 would prohibit peer restraints, strip and body cavity searches, abuse, neglect, repeated physical exercises and “discipline or punishment that is intended to frighten or humiliate.”

Additionally, the bill will increase on-site visitation requirements, require facilities to implement suicide prevention programs and report usage of chemical restraints within one business day, and increase funding to the Department of Human Services’ Office of Licensing for the purpose of hiring seven or eight new employees.

Sen. McKell, the sponsor of S.B. 127, said he first became aware of the lack of oversight of Utah’s youth residential treatment centers through his work as an attorney, reviewing the legal case of a person enrolled at a treatment center who “suffered a traumatic brain injury.”

“And as I reviewed it, it was very apparent to me that we didn’t have the appropriate guardrails in place (and) the regulatory structure was extremely, extremely weak,” McKell said in an interview Friday.

McKell also credited a protest outside of Provo Canyon School that Hilton organized in October 2020, as well as investigative reporting on youth treatment centers by The Salt Lake Tribune, with helping him decide “it was clear that it was time to run legislation.”

“It was clear to me that our regulatory structure is extremely deficient to deal with the problems that we’ve been facing as a state,” the Spanish Fork senator said. “And it’s been deficient for a long time, and I think that’s really tragic.”

S.B. 127 unanimously passed its second reading in the Utah State Senate on Thursday. It still needs to be voted on once more by the Senate before going to the House for further consideration.

“This is a significant piece of legislation for the state of Utah,” McKell said on Friday. “We’ve got some issues today with youth residential treatment centers in Utah, I think we all acknowledge that. And, as a state, we’re better than that.”

McKell told his colleagues that the bill “has really good support” from the industry, including from Provo Canyon School, the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, which has 50 schools and programs in Utah, and the Youth Providers Association in Springville.

“What we need to do is we need to adopt best practices,” he said. “National standards, best practices in the state of Utah.”

More work to be done

Some state lawmakers, including Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, argue that McKell’s effort to regulate youth residential treatment centers doesn’t go far enough.

“As a mother of kiddos, I cannot even imagine any of my six kids going through this hell,” Escamilla said when the bill was heard in the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

“We definitely have more work,” McKell agreed on Friday. “I fully intend to run additional legislation in the future.”

For example, McKell said he is still concerned about how teenagers are transported to facilities, noting that it’s typically done by “two large individuals, oftentimes in the middle of the night.”

“And I don’t know that these folks are licensed,” he said. “I’d like to review their training, and I’d like to make sure that when we transport kids, best practices are followed.”

The Spanish Fork senator added that he is becoming increasingly concerned with how these facilities market themselves,” noting that many are marketed as schools despite only having a small academic component.

“I think there needs to be much more transparency on the marketing side, much more disclosure to parents about what programs are and what they simply are not,” said McKell.

While Provo Canyon School has stated that it was sold by its previous ownership in August 2000 and “therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to that time,” McKell rejected that notion that abuse at facilities is a thing of the past.

“Absolutely, unequivocally, there are ongoing problems,” he said. “One of the questions I think Provo Canyon School still needs to answer is how a 14-year-old girl was chemically restrained 17 times in a two-month period (in 2018 and 2019). I’d like to know more about that.”

McKell added that he has “received numerous emails from employees at facilities across the state expressing concern,” all of whom worked at the facilities within the past five to 10 years.

McKell emphasized that he believes “there are great facilities in the state of Utah” and “lots of people (in the industry) that truly care about the kids.”

“The vast, vast majority of these programs are very good, they’re needed. But, at this point, what I want to do is make sure we have appropriate oversight and make sure that we empower the state of Utah to regulate an industry where needed,” he said.

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