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Inspection Regulation of Utah’s Troubled Teen Industry

Updated: Apr 7

Aileen E. Dosev

Minnetonka High School, MN 55345


The United States' troubled teen industry (TTI) is composed of a variety of private facilities, boot camps, and treatment centers with the purpose of reforming undesirable behavior in young adults (Monsees & Mayer, P.C., 2020). Teenagers are sent to these so-called “congregate care" facilities by their parents for a variety of perceived behavioral problems, ranging from perceived disrespectfulness and entitlement to drug use and committing crimes (Mandal, 2022). Children caught in the TTI are often subject to minimally regulated “harsh behavioral modification,” unable to defend themselves and lacking contact with the outside world (Monsees & Mayer, P.C., 2020).


Youth are exposed to “food and sleep deprivation, vigorous labor, verbal and physical abuse, and humiliation” under the philosophy that militant treatment corrects delinquency (Mandal, 2022). These conditions have escalated to sexual abuse, solitary confinement, and even death in the past due to incompetent or abusive adult staff (Mandal, 2022). The TTI is an inherently dehumanizing and trauma-inducing institution that leaves a permanent mark on all who have passed through it.


The troubled teen industry has only recently been subject to widespread criticism. Allegations and testimony from celebrity Paris Hilton highlight physical and mental abuse during her time at Provo Canyon School, a TTI facility in Utah (Hilton, 2021). Since Hilton went public, others who attended Provo Canyon and other Utah schools have spoken against the industry. Their recounts of ill-treatment and lifelong emotional damage have drawn attention from the public and national media. Activist organizations have taken legal action with the goal of “preventing [future] institutional child abuse,” according to the mission statement of the prominent activist stakeholder, Breaking Code Silence (Breaking Code Silence, 2021).


Utah specifically is a hotspot for the troubled teen industry, with nearly 100 youth treatment centers in the state. Utah’s TTI has been under fire from countless claims of forced medication, solitary confinement, and other forms of mistreatment. The key to this dilemma: Utah legislature has placed little to no regulation on the industry until recently. In April 2021, Utah’s governor signed Senate regulation Bill 127 (SB127) on the TTI, according to a local news source familiar with the topic (Stevens, 2021).


The bill was the first regulation of Utah’s TTI in 15 years. This new legislation will define the industry's future, making it critical to analyze the efficacy of the new bill in improving treatment conditions at TTI facilities. SB127 has the potential to stop the ill-treatment of youth within the industry and prevent future harm to children in Utah. These changes could also lead to improvements made in the industry across the U.S.


One of Senate Bill 127’s measures to prevent abuse within Utah’s troubled teen industry is to change the frequency and some requirements of facility inspections. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, a local news journal, Utah's Office of Licensing examines most facilities just once annually (Stevens, 2021). The new regulation requires the Office to “enter and inspect a congregate-care program at least once each calendar quarter” (S.B. 127 Human Services Program Amendments, 2021). The word “enter” marks a change from the year 2020, when sites were inspected virtually. Of the mandated visits, two must be unannounced according to the law. The goal was to improve the quality and transparency of TTI inspections.

To fulfill these new requirements, the Office also received $534,000 in funding to recoup labor costs, according to the Salt Lake Tribune (Miller & Craft, 2021). These changes to inspection policy under SB127 attempt to reduce the mistreatment of teens in congregate care. However, when applied in reality, the bill’s modifications may not create significant change.


Although increasing industry oversight appears a good solution, the inspection of congregate care facilities has proven to be unreliable. This means increasing the number of inspections is unlikely to improve the quality of care in Utah’s troubled teen facilities. In the past, Utah’s inspection checklist has generally failed to pinpoint misdemeanors within the troubled teen industry.


Jessica Miller, a Pulitzer-awarded legal affairs reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune, analyzed public record data from the past five years and found that “inspectors determined that centers were non-compliant on only 1.6% of the checklist items,” and that of the 155 facilities in Utah, only 11% were found to have more than 15 offenses (Miller & Craft, 2021). Miller’s discoveries prove how narrow the scope of Utah’s current inspection policy is, and how ineffective current practices are at identifying the abuse occurring within the industry. Of the minimal offenses the Office of Licensing reported, Miller found that the most common issues were missing paperwork and lack of compliance with building regulations. Most of the inspection checklist has little to do with the actual treatment of teens in the facilities (Miller & Craft, 2021).


The fact that the living conditions of the industry’s patients are not reflected in Utah’s TTI inspections shows how inefficient current practices are. The inherent disconnect between first-hand accounts and inspector’s assessments prove that current inspections do not reflect the reality of abuse within the system. This makes an increase in inspections unlikely to prevent abuse or mistreatment of troubled teens. Overall, the new Senate Bill 127 will likely have minimal effect on the actual treatment of children in Utah’s troubled teen industry.

The latest regulation of Utah’s TTI is the result of growing concern about the treatment of the nation’s youth at these facilities. While SB127 acts as a general increase in oversight within the industry, the bill’s increased inspection measures will have a minimal impact on the patient experience if inspection criteria itself is not revised. It is evident that current inspection checklists neither accurately portray the physical, psychological, and verbal abuse within the industry, nor do inspectors' official reports comment on the industry’s malpractice.

Unless certain aspects of the inspection process are improved, SB127 will not lead to a decrease in child abuse within the troubled teen industry. One way to make the bill’s inspection criteria more effective would be to increase the weight of patient experience-related questions on the inspection list. For example, a congregate care center could be punished more severely for hunger complaints than for a leaking sink. By placing greater emphasis on the experience of TTI patients, the bar for inspection can be raised.


Another method suggested by a child welfare expert in Miller's report is for the Office of Licensing to “[use] trained clinicians, psychologists, and social workers” to judge the quality of a facility (Miller & Craft, 2021). The funding for labor provided to the Office as part of the bill could be used to hire such experts. If these additional changes occur, State Senate Bill 127 has a greater chance of improving the treatment of the troubled teen industry’s patients, within and outside of Utah.


November 23, 2021


References

Breaking Code Silence. (2021). Breaking Code Silence. Breaking Code Silence. https://www.breakingcodesilence.org

Hilton, P. (2021, October 18). America’s “troubled teen industry” needs reform so kids can avoid the abuse I endured. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/18/paris-hilton-child-care-facilities-abuse-reform/

Mandal, S. (2022). The “Troubled Teen” Industry. NYRA; National Youth Rights Association. https://www.youthrights.org/issues/medical-autonomy/the-troubled-teen-industry/

Miller, J., & Craft, W. (2021, Mar 10). Utah inspectors find no problems in ‘troubled-teen’ facilities 98% of the time. The Salt Lake Tribune. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/utah-inspectors-find-no-problems-troubled-teen/docview/2499820058/se-2?accountid=45111

Monsees & Mayer, P.C. (2020, November 2). Troubled Teen Industry. Monsees & Mayer P.C. https://www.monseesmayer.com/troubled-teen-industry/

S.B. 127 Human Services Program Amendments, (2021). https://le.utah.gov/~2021/bills/static/SB0127.html

Stevens, T. (2021, Mar 03). New regulations for the state’s ‘troubled teen’ industry win final legislative approval. The Salt Lake Tribune. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/new-regulations-state-s-troubled-teen-industry/docview/2497238025/se-2?accountid=45111


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