Gut-wrenching testimony on SB 127, which would put ‘guardrails’ on residential treatment centers

Paris Hilton is using her platform and status as a celebrity to shed light on reprehensible practices occurring in some of Utah’s residential treatment centers for “troubled kids.” Senator Mike McKell is running SB 127 to address some of those egregious and disturbing practices. His bill was up yesterday in the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice committee and was discussed in an emotional hour-long hearing

His bill addresses 6 areas (although he and other members of the committee recognize more is needed.) 

  1. The use of physical restraints must be reported to the state within one business day.
  2. The use of chemical restraints should be extremely narrow, authorized by the state and overseen by medical professionals.
  3. Each facility must have a suicide prevention plan.
  4. On-site visits will occur, both announced and unannounced.
  5. Each facility must have a non-discrimation policy.
  6. Each facility must publicly post their complaint process.

Paris Hilton’s testimony – and that of the other witnesses – was gutting. They detailed trauma and abuse of every kind – physical, psychological, emotional and sexual. They describe the types of treatment that happens to prisoners of war in countries that don’t much care about human rights – restraints, drugging, psychological torture, isolation, deprivation. And these are kids.

Ms. Hilton described being kidnapped in the dead of night by men with handcuffs who told her she could “go the easy way or the hard way.” Once she got to the Provo Canyon “treatment facility,” she describes not being allowed to go outside for 11 months, not being allowed to talk with her family, being isolated, beaten and drugged, experiencing and witnessing abuse. Caroline Lorson, with the group Breaking Code Silence, shared her experience of being woken in the middle of night by “transporters” who kicked down her door and taken against her will to a treatment facility in Utah. She was told that both staff and students were allowed to break her legs if she tried to escape – and told that she should try to break other student’s legs if they tried to escape. They were also told that the neighbors were armed and would shoot them if they ran. She was not allowed to speak to her family for a year. 

The third witness to testify was Jeff Netta, whose eomtional testimony recounted how he was put in a 5-point harness multiple times, sometimes for days at a time and drugged with Thorazine. He was not allowed out, even to go to the bathroom, and was strapped on rubber sheets for up to a week. He was put in solitary confinement for 2 months, where staff would enter his cell and beat him randomly and regularly. He was 13 years old

He testified that “I didn’t want to tell anybody this stuff,” and hadn’t, until Ms. Hilton shared her story in a documentary last year. His family asked him about his experience and wanted to know if Hilton’s story rang true. That’s when Netta began to share his horrifying experiences of his confinement in the Heritage “school” at the mouth of Provo Canyon. “I survived – but I don’t know anybody else who has,” he said, speaking of his time there. He is the only one he knows of from that time who has a job and a family – all the rest, he said, are in jail, in a mental institution, homeless or dead. 

Senator McKell also gave a well-deserved shout-out to Salt Lake Tribune reporter, Jessica Miller. She has been detailing the patterns of abuse for months. In August, she wrote a story about the “troubled teen” industry and why Utah has become the place to send kids from all over the country. 

Just last week, she wrote about one Oregon teen who was sent to Provo Canyon School and who was chemically restrained with the powerful sedative Haldol 17 times in three months. Seventeen times. She was 14 years old and intellectually and developmentally disabled. 

She has also written about a troubling pattern of sexual abuse in some facilities, with rates 4 times higher than average and how it took a riot at Utah’s Red Rock Canyon school before regulators took a close look and found “escalting problems and staff abuse.” 

Her work has been instrumental in raising awareness about what’s been going on in some facilities and led to McKell’s bill presentation yesterday. After some emotional comments by Senators on the committee, the bill passed unanimously and heads to the Senate floor for debate.