How Utah Became the Nation’s No. 1 Place to Send Troubled Teens

For years, Utah was the epicenter of the nation’s so-called troubled teen industry.

Since 2015, some 20,000 children have been sent to programs in Utah that cater to parents and state agencies desperate for help for some teens. Some are on juvenile probation. They may struggle with drug abuse or suffer from eating disorders. Some are depressed or defiant. Some cut themselves or attempted suicide.

And the companies that have taken them in have taken advantage of parents or public agencies paying hundreds of dollars a day for the promise that the child will be helped. Teenagers contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to Utah’s economy each year, according to University of Utah estimates.

There are more children sent to Utah for treatment than to any other state. Over six years, from 2015 to 2020, 34% of all teens who crossed state lines to enter a youth treatment center traveled to Utah.

How have Utah businesses been tasked with helping so many troubled youth? The answer is a complex combination of Utah history, culture, and rules and regulations.

Utah’s Impeccable Reputation

The seeds were planted in the 1960s when a Brigham Young University student named Larry Dean Olsen began organizing wilderness outings with his classmates.

Leaders of BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, noticed that students who went on trips seemed to do better in school and had better manners at home. School officials developed a course that offered failing BYU students a chance at readmission if they learned survival skills and went on a month-long backpacking trip through the Utah desert. .

It was on this basis that the lucrative wilderness therapy industry was born.

Parenting programs promised wayward teens living and hiking in scenic Utah deserts and mountains would have a transformative experience that would change their lives for the better.

Republican Senator Mike McKell, who last year sponsored the first reform in more than a decade of state oversight of the teen treatment industry, said the origin story of the private religious institution gave the industry “instant credibility” with parents in other states. looking for solutions for their teenagers.

“Utah has a very clean look, clean feel,” he said. “And we are proud of our strong family values. I think everything plays a role.

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A “pioneer” at the school of Provo Canyon

In the 1970s, Utah’s youth treatment programs had expanded beyond children’s hikes on public lands. They included congregate care facilities.

One program that began around this time remains among the most important: Provo Canyon School.

“You had kind of a pioneer in youth treatment programs with Provo Canyon School,” said Ken Stettler, a former regulator who headed the Utah Licensing Office, which oversees treatment programs across the country. State. “Anyone involved in treating young people these days can probably relate to Provo Canyon. And the fact that a good number of people who worked there broke up and started other processing facilities.

The men who founded the Provo Canyon School in 1971 are a prime example: Eugene Thorne, Robert Crist and Jack Williams. They started four facilities in Utah, most of which are still in operation. Other workers – including therapists and administrative staff – also opened programs.

“You had all these offshoots that started, and most of them were people who worked there,” Stettler said. “They were locals. They wanted to start their own program. They don’t want to go to another state.

Utah is considered a “parents’ rights state,” meaning parents can make medical decisions on behalf of their children. So if a child is in Utah for treatment, they can’t leave the facility unless their parents agree.

This is not what happens in other states. In California, for example, a child must consent to mental health treatment if they are 12 or older. In Washington state, that age is 13.

Cheap land and an enthusiastic workforce

According to Megan Stokes, director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, the lower cost of living in Utah compared to other states is another reason the teen treatment industry has grown. .

“There is a lot of land available,” she added.

Stokes also said Utah has an enthusiastic workforce, often college students who take lower-paying jobs to care for children, either because they are majoring in social work or because they feel called to help young people.

“That’s where you have the talent pool,” she said.

About 30 percent of his organization the members are from Utah, according to a review of their membership records.

Stettler, the former regulator, said that’s where Utah’s culture and deep ties to the LDS faith also come into play.

“People of this faith believe that their role and responsibility on Earth is to help each other and others who need help,” he said. “So the idea of ​​working in a facility where you can help a child change their life is appealing.”

Weak regulation

As the industry grew in Utah, serious problems arose – allegations of abuse, riots, deaths in wilderness programs, sexual assaults, and lawsuits.

Historically, these programs have been poorly regulated by the state. They are often allowed to continue operating despite findings that a facility violated state rules or that a worker harmed children.

Regulators have not shut down a facility in the past five years. The closest It was in 2019, when Red Rock Canyon School relinquished its certification after a riot and media scrutiny showed growing violence at the facility.

Now, regulators are scrutinizing those facilities more closely than ever after Utah lawmakers updated the law last year.

The law imposes limits on the use of restraints, drugs and seclusion rooms in youth treatment programs. It requires facilities to document any instances in which staff use physical restraints and isolation, and it requires them to submit reports to state licensors. It also increases the number of inspections that regulators have to perform.

Amanda Slater served as Director of the Licensing Office for three years until she recently accepted another government post. She said the law placed regulators in facilities more often, which helped them identify problems more quickly. Previously, regulators only visited a program once a year and the inspection was scheduled.

“Most people would clean their house before you showed up, right?” she says. “So you don’t always find the problems. If we are aware of it, we act. We are much more aware because we are there more frequently.

KUER reporter David Fuchs contributed to this article.

Sent Away is an investigative podcast from APM Reports, KUER and The Salt Lake Grandstand. The report is funded in part by Arnold Ventures, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Hollyhock Foundation. See more collaborative reports.

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