One year after the first regulatory reform in 15 years, one lawmaker says the state’s tools are still not strong enough. “There are certain violations that absolutely merit a facility being shut down.”
A lawmaker cites the state’s “clean look, clean feel” and strong family values. But the answer is a complex combination of history, culture and weak rules and regulations. Regulators haven’t closed a facility in the last five years.
Six years ago, a cruel disciplinary act against a young girl was kept secret — she had been forced to sit in a horse trough filled with cold water for 30 minutes. The incident only became public after the Sent Away team released a database of records that included every violation report documented at youth treatment facilities statewide. Today the state is planning to release violation and disciplinary information online.
Inappropriate contact between children and staff members has happened with some frequency in Utah’s teen treatment programs. Between November 2018 and July 2021, state regulators investigated at least 20 reports of staff pushing the boundaries with children, sometimes amounting to sexual abuse. State records show that 13 people resigned or were fired from youth treatment facilities after allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior during that time, according to a data analysis from Sent Away journalists.
“Secure transport services,” a shadowy corner of the teen-treatment industry, are almost entirely unregulated. Parent-hired transporters can pull kids from their beds, handcuff them, hold them down or blindfold them. In Utah, a legislator who recently sponsored a bill that brought regulatory reform to the state’s booming teen-treatment industry said he wants to take a closer look at how kids from all over the country are getting to the state for treatment.
Up until 2019, the agency regulating Utah’s massive youth treatment industry rarely cited facilities for violating rules — even after cases of abuse. After a 2016 incident left a teenager with a concussion, state regulators listened to his mom’s complaint — and then did nothing about it.
Utah has become a national center for youth treatment, and it goes easy on the industry. At one facility, teen girls were forced to sit in a horse trough as punishment, and state regulators chose not to punish the people who did it.
Thousands of children are sent away to Utah for treatment at "troubled-teen" centers and wilderness programs. But it has been hard to identify which places have a good track record and which ones don’t. Until now.