Organizations That Help Troubled Youth – Inside Utah’s troubled youth industry: How it started, why kids are sent here, and what happens to them
(Abigail Dolins | Special to The Tribune) Caleb LaChance, 18, sits on the steps of an RV for a photo Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in McMinnville, Ore. In late 2018, LaChance was sent to Red Rock Canyon School by the Oregon foster care system after he started getting in trouble for running away and smoking marijuana. During his time at the facility, La Chance was repeatedly placed in restraints and assaulted by staff. “Nobody believed the kids because it never happened on camera,” LaChance said. “Kids were always being attacked.”
Organizations That Help Troubled Youth
When a nation has children it doesn’t know what to do with, it often looks to Utah, where a lucrative industry thrives with little regulation from government officials.
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There are about 100 youth residential treatment centers in Utah, and in the past five years, they’ve seen nearly 12,000 children pass through their doors, some of whom jump from facility to facility. Because of the good reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and, for some, the state’s public lands create visions of powerful and healing wilderness therapy.
They are children sent by parents who pay more than $30,000, believing that their children are unruly and need help. Young people covered by Medicaid sent thousands of miles after being hospitalized for depression or anxiety. Children who commit crimes. And they are students with disabilities who were sent to another state by their school district.
Utah’s “troubled youth” industry has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in state money. It does not include parents paying individually. A research summary from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute estimates that the industry generated $328 million in revenue and contributed 6,400 jobs in 2015 alone.
Many of these children say they were helped by the treatment they received, from college campuses to rural areas, from specialized facilities to large centers that seek to treat a wide range of conditions and problems.
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A detailed analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune shows that the largest facilities, often controlled by companies that own many medical facilities, have many of their contracts out of state. And they often have more allegations of sexual harassment and abuse than the average Utah medical center.
The Tribune spoke with about a dozen youths who spent time in Utah facilities, many of whom described physical and psychological abuse in detail. The newspaper also sought financial records, court documents, police records and more to investigate an industry that is under-scrutinized.
Because when something goes wrong, there is often little awareness and few calls for change. One reason: Neglected, abused or abused children don’t come from here.
Staff at Provo Canyon School often did not call him by his name. They were 309, a number given to identify clothes and other possessions.
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The teenager, who uses his first name, came to Utah in 2017 — one of 99 children from Alaska sent here that year with Medicaid funding. They tried to escape somewhere in Alaska and were then hospitalized. The hospital recommended Springville Medical Center to his father and stepmother.
309, as they requested accreditation for this story, need help dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and autism. But they said that didn’t really happen. Instead they were kept away from home and family, where staff threatened residents and told them no one would believe them if they spoke out about the abuse.
Residents were told to avert their eyes and look at the floor while staff restrained themselves and held another child, 309 said. It happened often, sometimes because the resident tried to hurt themselves, or sometimes because they were making too much noise.
Some residents were injected with a sedative, they said, often called “booty juice.”
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309 said, “I consider my experience in Provo Canyon worse and more horrific than my experience of child abuse while living with my biological mother.” 309 said, “Sure, there were good times, but I lived in fear and pain. No way out. Until you get in, until the school decides they’re done with you.”
Now 19, 309 are having trouble talking to their parents about what happened there, and asked to remain anonymous because of the ongoing anxiety they feel.
Alaska spent more than $31 million in Medicaid funding over six years to send 511 children to Utah. And it is not unique. Nevada has spent more than $35 million since 2014 — sending 761 young people here, according to its Medicaid data.
Officials in other states say they don’t have enough resources or special programs to care for these young people, or have had trouble finding facilities that will take them.
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“We don’t have enough shelter beds in Nevada for our population,” said Megan Freeman, a psychologist with the state Department of Child and Family Services. “They’ll be waiting on a waiting list for a bed here, and for reasons related to the pace of treatment or bursts of behavior, that’s not an acceptable wait time.”
Marcia Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, said the problem is that many states don’t plan for children with severe behavioral problems, especially those in foster care. Their national nonprofit organization has sued several places over their foster care systems.
He said states often will send children to any treatment facility that will take them, even if the facility is understaffed or has a history of violence among youth or staff.
“Children who are sent overseas are supposed to be visited regularly by a caseworker, and that’s not happening,” Lowry said. “They are also alienated from the family. The child does not see anyone in the community or in his parents. So the child is often very isolated.
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The Tribune requested data from every state and nearly every 14 states that have issued detailed financial records agreements and a few similar jurisdictions.
Provo Canyon School, the facility where celebrity Paris Hilton claims she was abused, received more than $37 million in federal funding over five years from seven states, according to an analysis by The Tribune. It is owned by Universal Health Services, which also owns two other Utah facilities that brought in the most money: Benchmark Behavioral Health received more than $29 million from eight states, while Copper Hills Youth Center received $26.3 million.
Another big earner was Red Rock Canyon School, which is owned by Sequel Youth and Family Services, an Alabama company that focuses exclusively on youth facilities. School St. George received more than $13 million in federal funding from six states until it closed last year after riots, allegations of child abuse and reports of sexual abuse.
Police aren’t called every day, but those high-income centers are visited by more officers than others, according to an analysis of police dispatch records for 64 centers across the state. The Tribune calculated the rate of police calls per bed, so that small and large facilities — juvenile treatment centers ranging from a few dozen beds to housing several hundred children — could be compared.
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Officers were called to investigate sex crimes 29 times over a four-year period at the Provo Canyon school’s boys’ campus, a rate more than four times the average at a residential youth treatment facility in Utah.
Employees at Copper Hills reported sex crimes to police 21 times over a 5½-year period, 1.6 times more than the average facility. The alleged offenses involved young people pretending to have sex with their peers, as well as employees allegedly abusing a young man.
And at Red Rock Canyon School, staff members called police 69 times for violent crimes, such as assault or child abuse, during the same period — double the average number of violent crime calls.
According to Lori with Good Childhood, a high number of police calls is a red flag that the treatment center does not have the right programs and treatment. He believes that staff with insufficient skills do not know how to deal with “problem children”, who have fights or situations that can get out of control.
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“It’s a very dangerous place to put kids,” he said, “especially dangerous when you have kids who are already troubled. In the absence of good programs, kids explode.
Ken Foster, a former Copper Hills employee who worked there for three years until he quit in 2013, said he often dreaded going to work. He didn’t have enough co-workers, and he couldn’t give the children the treatment they needed. As a result, staff often restrained children, although he said it was not something he was happy about.
Foster said it is also common to give children tranquilizers — a practice that is banned or greatly reduced in some states.
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